US Supreme Court to Review State Laws Restricting Social Media Companies
On Friday, the US Supreme Court announced its decision to examine the legality of Republican-backed state laws in Texas and Florida that impose constraints on social media companies’ ability to regulate content on their platforms that they consider objectionable.
The court has taken up two cases involving challenges presented by technology industry groups that argue these 2021 laws, which limit the content moderation practices of large social media platforms, violate the First Amendment protections for freedom of speech outlined in the US Constitution. Lower courts have had differing opinions on this issue, with some striking down key provisions of Florida’s law while upholding the Texas measure.
The industry challengers to these laws include NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), industry groups whose members encompass Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc, Google, which owns YouTube, TikTok, and X (formerly known as Twitter).
CCIA President Matt Schruers expressed optimism about the Supreme Court’s decision to take on the case, saying, “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.”
Supporters of these laws contend that social media platforms have engaged in impermissible censorship, particularly silencing conservative voices. Meanwhile, advocates of content moderation argue that it is necessary to combat misinformation and the promotion of extremist causes.
President Joe Biden’s administration supported a review of these cases, asserting that the state laws burdened the rights of the companies. The Justice Department argued that when a social media platform selects, edits, and arranges third-party speech for public presentation, it engages in activity protected by the First Amendment.
These cases revolve around the argument made by industry groups that the First Amendment safeguards the editorial discretion of social media platforms and prevents governments from compelling companies to publish content against their will. The companies contend that without editorial discretion, their websites would be overrun with spam, bullying, extremism, and hate speech.
Critics of “Big Tech” companies, particularly those on the conservative side, have cited the suspension of then-President Donald Trump’s Twitter account after the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol as an example of censorship. Twitter had suspended Trump’s account citing “the risk of further incitement of violence.” Trump’s account has since been reinstated under Elon Musk, who now owns the renamed company.
In 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed the law, stating, “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 prohibits social media companies with at least 50 million monthly active users from “censoring” users based on “viewpoint” and allows users or the Texas attorney general to sue to enforce it.
Florida’s law mandates that large platforms must “host some speech that they might otherwise prefer not to host” by preventing the censorship or banning of political candidates or “journalistic enterprises.”
“Online services have a well-established First Amendment right to host, curate, and share content as they see fit. The internet is a vital platform for free expression, and it must remain free from government censorship,” said NetChoice litigation director Chris Marchese.
Officials from Florida and Texas have not immediately responded to requests for comment. Florida is seeking to revive its law following a ruling against it by the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals. Meanwhile, the industry groups are appealing a decision by the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the Texas law and had previously been blocked by the Supreme Court at an earlier stage of the case.
The Supreme Court is expected to hear the Florida and Texas cases during its new nine-month term, commencing on Monday.