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Supreme Court to Review State Laws Limiting Social Media

 |  October 1, 2023

The U.S. Supreme Court has taken up the task of examining the legality of state laws in Texas and Florida that impose constraints on the moderation of content by social media companies on their platforms. These laws, championed by Republicans, have faced opposition from technology industry groups who contend that they infringe upon the First Amendment’s freedom of speech protections, reported Reuters.

This legal scrutiny revolves around challenges brought forth by industry groups NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA). Among the members of these groups are major players such as Facebook parent company Meta, Google, TikTok, and X (formerly Twitter). The lower courts have grappled with this issue, with Florida’s law seeing certain provisions struck down, while the Texas law has been upheld.

Matt Schruers, President of CCIA, expressed optimism about the Supreme Court’s decision to take on the case. He stated, “It is high time that the Supreme Court resolves whether governments can force websites to publish dangerous content. Telling private websites they must give equal treatment to extremist hate isn’t just unwise, it is unconstitutional, and we look forward to demonstrating that to the court.”

Advocates of these laws argue that social media platforms have engaged in censorship and have stifled conservative voices. Conversely, proponents of content moderation assert the necessity of countering misinformation and the amplification of extremist causes.

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The Biden administration has lent its support to the review of these cases, asserting in a court filing that these state laws burden the rights of the companies. The Justice Department emphasized that when social media platforms curate, edit, and present third-party speech for public consumption, they engage in activity protected by the First Amendment.

These cases will test the argument put forth by industry groups that the First Amendment safeguards the editorial discretion of social media platforms and bars governments from compelling companies to publish content against their will. The companies argue that without such discretion, their websites would be inundated with spam, harassment, extremism, and hate speech.

Critics of major tech companies have pointed to the suspension of then-President Donald Trump’s Twitter account following the January 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol attack as evidence of censorship. Texas Governor Greg Abbott, upon signing the law in 2021, declared, “There is a dangerous movement by some social media companies to silence conservative ideas and values. This is wrong, and we will not allow it in Texas.”

The Texas law prevents social media companies with at least 50 million monthly active users from censoring users based on their viewpoints and enables users or the Texas attorney general to sue for enforcement. Florida’s law requires prominent platforms to host speech they might prefer not to host by prohibiting the censorship or banning of political candidates or journalistic entities.

Chris Marchese, litigation director at NetChoice, underscored the First Amendment right of online services to host, curate, and share content as they see fit. He stated, “The internet is a vital platform for free expression, and it must remain free from government censorship.”

The Supreme Court’s decision to review these laws follows the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta largely ruling against Florida’s law and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upholding the Texas law. Both cases are slated for hearings during the Supreme Court’s new nine-month term, commencing on Monday.

The outcome of these cases holds significant ramifications for the regulation of social media platforms and the safeguarding of online free speech.

Source: Reuters