Last week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a law Project which prohibits the largest social media companies from removing users or their posts based on their political views. It also allows Texans to sue social media websites with more than 50 million US users for perceived violations.
The law classifies social media platforms into public forums and âpublic operators,â a term often used to describe telephone companies or utilities that in most cases cannot discriminate against customers. The law empowers the state attorney general and private citizens to prosecute alleged violations.
Although the law claims it protects individuals from “censorship” on social media websites, it also appears to violate the speech rights of private companies.. Free speech scholars and advocacy groups say the Texas state government unconstitutionally dictates political discourse on the world’s biggest platforms by forcing platforms to convey privileged views.
Tech industry group NetChoice wrote in a declaration Texas law requires websites to host “obscene, anti-Semitic, racist, hateful, and otherwise horrific content.”
Kate Huddleston, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said governments forcing private parties to broadcast political content violated First Amendment protections in the U.S. Constitution. âThe government’s efforts to organize online content on particular platforms are an impermissible exercise of editorial control, just as the government cannot force newspapers to broadcast political speech,â she said. A similar state law in Florida, which would have forced social media sites to host political candidates and their speeches, was blocked by a federal judge on June 30 on the basis of the First Amendment.
Social media platforms enjoy First Amendment rights to set and enforce rules on content free from government restrictions, said Jonathan Peters, professor of media law at the University of Georgia Law School. âThis means that platforms can decide what can be published, who can have an account and under what conditions, when to honor content removal requests, how to display and prioritize content using algorithms, and so on. “, did he declare.
Aaron Mackey, a lawyer with digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, said Texas would face an uphill battle to ensure the law survives judicial review. It does not appear that a lawsuit has yet been filed. Mackey explained that any law restricting speech based on content would be subject to the strict standard of review under the First Amendment, with a high bar forcing the government to show the law was closely matched with compelling public interest. Mackey argued that the law does not meet this standard.
The office of Texas Governor Greg Abbott did not respond to requests from the press.
Texas and Florida face hurdles with censorship laws
Legal analysts say laws like Texas’ new bill also appear to violate Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a clause protecting internet companies from liability for posting and moderating potentially objectionable user-generated content. .
The clause, which allowed the Internet to evolve as a relatively unregulated forum, gives the world’s largest tech companies a safe haven to host, delete, or ignore content without fear of litigation.
But the Basic Law is now under attack by Democrats and Republicans who say they want to rule over online excesses. The liberals have widely criticized social media companies for being too lax in monitoring their platforms against hate speech and disinformation during the Trump era, while the conservatives have asserted (without much evidence) that these platforms stifle conservative discourse. Peters, of the University of Georgia Law School, said Texas law amounts to “political theater” rather than a good faith effort to protect speech.
âThe Texas law is clearly unconstitutional and it will be struck down,â Peters said. “It violates the First Amendment while cynically claiming to protect the First Amendment.”