Court Battles

Section 230, student debt top divisive Supreme Court agenda

The Supreme Court begins a two-week argument session on Tuesday that includes divisive clashes over student debt forgiveness and a controversial liability shield known as Section 230 that Big Tech argues is fundamental to social media.

The justices will begin the busy period by weighing the scope of Section 230 before hearing from the Biden administration the following week. Lawyers for the administration will be seeking to fend off challenges to block its plan to forgive up to $20,000 in student debt for qualifying borrowers.

Rulings in the cases are expected by the summer. Here’s a preview of the two big clashes.

Section 230

The justices on Tuesday will hear Gonzalez v. Google, which could upend protections internet companies have had throughout the nearly two-decade rise of social media.

The plaintiffs, relatives of a victim who was among the more than 100 people killed in a series of attacks by Islamic State terrorists in Paris in November 2015, sued Google under federal anti-terrorism laws.

The family accused Google of aiding and abetting terrorism by purportedly recommending pro-ISIS content to users on YouTube, but Google argues that its recommendations are protected by Section 230, a controversial provision that shields internet companies from liability for content provided by a third-party user. 

The tech industry contends that taking the family’s side would dampen a critical shield that effectively allows the modern internet to function. 

“Recommendation algorithms are what make it possible to find the needles in humanity’s largest haystack,” Google wrote in its brief

The dispute may also have broader impacts beyond the tech industry.  

On Wednesday, the justices will interpret the anti-terrorism law that the family believes makes Google liable in the first place.

The court will take it up through Twitter v. Taamneh, a case brought by relatives of another ISIS terrorist attack victim that levies similar allegations against social media platforms.

Google has suggested that siding with the tech industry in Taamneh would resolve both cases, because Google wouldn’t have any liability to need Section 230’s protections.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and some legal scholars argue taking Big Tech’s position would let terrorism sympathizers off the hook, while other observers contend that holding the companies liable would lead foreign countries to reciprocate in their courts against the U.S.

Student debt forgiveness

The Biden administration will attempt to save its student debt forgiveness program on Feb. 28, when the Supreme Court will hear two challenges to the plan.

Six Republican-led states and two individual loan borrowers who did not qualify for the relief argue the administration should not be allowed to forgive up to $20,000 in debt for qualifying individuals.

Their lawsuits have stalled the program, and the justices now are poised to deliver the final verdict on whether Biden can move ahead with fulfilling one of his campaign promises.

The administration asserts that neither group has standing, meaning the legal capacity to sue, so the justices shouldn’t even consider the merits of their challenges.

If the justices do reach the merits, they will weigh whether Education Secretary Miguel Cardona could forgive the debts using an authority connected to the national emergency established during the pandemic.

“It’s going to help tens of millions of folks,” Biden said last month. “Folks on Pell Grants were hit financially because of the pandemic. Seventy percent of Black college students receive Pell Grants. For many Black students, the saving will be significant in my debt relief plan, including wiping out their student debt completely. That’s a real game-changer.”  

Both groups of challengers contend Cardona overstepped his authority, arguing the plan would need clearer authorization from Congress. 

“This case calls on the Court once again to stop the administration from unlawfully invoking COVID-19 to assert power beyond anything Congress could have conceived,” the six Republican attorneys general argued in their brief.

The individual challengers also argue Cardona did not follow proper procedures and that they were denied their rightful opportunity to provide written comments on the plan.

Other cases

The student debt arguments are sandwiched by two lower-profile cases that week.

On Monday, the justices will consider in Dubin v. United States the standard for committing aggravated identity theft, a federal crime that involves using another person’s identity in connection with committing certain felonies.

The case involves David Dubin, a psychological center executive who was convicted of health care fraud for submitting a false Medicaid claim. 

Since he used his patient’s name on the falsified document, lower courts also convicted Dubin of aggravated identity theft and sentenced him to two additional years in prison. Dubin argues he should be cleared of that charge, because the statute requires a nexus to the underlying crime and writing his patient’s name was merely “incidental.”

The justices will cap off the argument session on Wednesday with a case that was brought directly to the Supreme Court, because it is a dispute between two states: New York and New Jersey.

New Jersey is attempting to withdraw from the Waterfront Commission Compact, which it signed in 1953 to address organized crime at the Port of New York and New Jersey.

The case had been scheduled for a different day, but it was moved after the justices canceled an oral argument about Title 42, which limits migrants’ ability to seek asylum in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic.

A group of GOP-led states is seeking to intervene in the case to defend the policy, but the justices on Thursday removed it from their calendar without explanation. 

That decision came days after the Biden administration suggested the case may be moot once the COVID-19 public health emergency expires in May.

Tags Chuck Grassley Section 230 Student loans Supreme Court

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