Florida takes battle over social media regulations to Supreme Court

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Florida’s attorney general on Wednesday asked the Supreme Court to decide whether states have the right to regulate how social media companies moderate content on their services. The The ruling sends one of the most contentious debates of the internet age to the highest court in the land.

At issue is the constitutionality of state laws in Florida and Texas that would prevent social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube from blocking or limiting certain types of political speech. Federal appeals courts have issued conflicting rulings on the two similar statutes, with the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit striking down much of the Florida law while the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit confirmed Texas law last week.

“This irreconcilable divide warrants review by this Court,” Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody wrote in the Supreme Court petition. Specifically, the motion asks the court to determine whether the First Amendment prohibits states from requiring platforms to host speech they do not wish to host, such as news reports or messages from politicians that they deem violate their rules. .

The petition sets up the most serious test yet of claims that Silicon Valley companies are illegally censoring conservative viewpoints, a view that gained momentum on the right after major social media suspended Donald Trump in January 2021. If the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case, its The move could have far-reaching effects on the future of democracy and elections, as tech companies play an increasingly important role in spreading news and discussion about politics.

Read Florida’s filing for a Supreme Court hearing

Critics of state social media laws warn that restricting tech companies’ freedom to moderate content could lead to a torrent of hate speech, misinformation and other violent content.

The question of how the First Amendment rights of social media companies interact with the expression rights of their users is an important and unresolved one, said Genevieve Lakier, a professor at the University of Chicago School of Law. She expects the Supreme Court to deal with it, perhaps consolidating the Florida and Texas cases into a single decision.

“It’s a really big question: how do we regulate social media platforms?” says Laker. “I think this could shape the way the internet works in a very significant way. If these laws are followed, it will force platforms to host a lot of speech that they don’t want to host.

Appeals court upholds Texas law regulating social media moderation

Earlier this year, the 11th Circuit ruled that Florida could not prohibit social media platforms from removing or limiting posts from presidential candidate news outlets. It also rolled back a provision that would require platforms to provide notice and an explanation to users whenever they limit or remove something they post. He upheld parts of the law requiring companies to provide more transparency about their content policies.

The Florida Attorney General incorporated into the state petition the recent Conservative 5th Circuit victory, which upheld a Texas law prohibiting companies from cutting jobs based on a person’s political ideology. The Florida petition says circuit court decisions are in conflict and the Supreme Court must resolve those differences. Moody’s did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The legal battle over the Florida law began in May 2021, when NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), two industry groups representing major social media companies, filed a lawsuit to stop the law from being implemented. come into force. The tech companies scored major victories when a federal judge in June last year blocked the law from going into effect, and then when the 11th Circuit upheld much of that ruling. Tech companies say they think they’ll see a similar result in the Supreme Court.

“We agree with Florida that the United States Supreme Court should hear this case, and we are confident that First Amendment rights will be upheld,” said NetChoice Vice President and General Counsel. , Carl Szabo, in a statement. “We have the Constitution and 200 years of precedent on our side.”

As the Florida petition points out, some members of the Supreme Court have already expressed interest in addressing the issues. Disagreeing with a Supreme Court decision that granted an emergency stay to Texas social media law, Judge Samuel A. Alito wrote that the case raised “issues of great importance” that ” clearly deserve the consideration of this tribunal”. He added, “It’s not at all clear how our existing precedents, which predate the internet age, should apply to large social media companies.”

The five majority members, including Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, did not provide reasons for their action.

Florida argues that social media companies have become so powerful that their content moderation decisions, such as the decision to remove unsubstantiated claims about the origin of the coronavirus, or a New York Post article on the laptop of Hunter Biden, “distort the market of ideas”. Florida argues that this gives the state a compelling interest in regulating them.

On the other hand, NetChoice argues that such decisions amount to an exercise in editorial discretion similar to editorial decisions by newspapers and television stations — which are considered protected speech under the First Amendment. This would set a high legal bar for any government to interfere with these decisions.

A Supreme Court decision would have consequences that stretch far beyond Florida, as more than 100 bills related to social media content moderation have been introduced in state legislatures across the country, according to a July analysis by the CCIA. Many state legislatures have already suspended until 2023, and they are closely monitoring the resolution of the dispute over the Florida and Texas laws.

Although the first laws regulating social media content were passed in conservative states, liberal states are now following with legislation to force more transparency about how companies respond to threats and hate speech. Any ruling on the power of First Amendment states to regulate how companies monitor their platforms could also have implications for these bills.

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