US Supreme Court sidesteps dispute on state laws regulating social media

notion image
  • Companies
WASHINGTON, July 1 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sidestepped making a decision on the legality of Republican-backed laws in Florida and Texas designed to restrict the power of social media companies to curb content that the platforms deem objectionable.
The justices unanimously threw out separate judicial decisions involving challenges brought by tech industry trade groups to the two laws under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment limits on the government's ability to restrict speech. The justices decided the lower courts did not adequately assess the First Amendment implications and directed them to conduct further analysis.
The Supreme Court's ruling came on the final day of the Supreme Court's term that began in October.
The two 2021 laws authorized the states to regulate the content-moderation practices of large social media platforms. They were challenged by NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), whose members include Facebook parent Meta Platforms (META.O), opens new tab, Alphabet's Google (GOOGL.O), opens new tab, which owns YouTube, as well as TikTok and Snapchat owner Snap (SNAP.N), opens new tab.
The lower courts split on the issue, blocking key provisions of Florida's law while upholding the Texas measure. Neither law has gone into effect due to the litigation.
Liberal Justice Elena Kagan, writing for a majority of the justices on Monday, cast doubt on the legality of the Texas law.
"Texas does not like the way those platforms are selecting and moderating content, and wants them to create a different expressive product, communicating different values and priorities," Kagan wrote. "But under the First Amendment, that is a preference Texas may not impose."
At issue is whether the First Amendment protects the editorial discretion of the social media platforms and prohibits governments from forcing companies to publish content against their will. The companies have said that without such discretion - including the ability to block or remove content or users, prioritize certain posts over others or include additional context - their websites would be overrun with spam, bullying, extremism and hate speech.
Many Republicans have argued that social media platforms stifle conservative voices in the guise of content moderation, branding this as censorship.
President Joe Biden's administration opposed the Florida and Texas laws, arguing that the content-moderation restrictions violate the First Amendment by forcing platforms to present and promote content they view as objectionable.
Officials from Florida and Texas countered that the content-moderation actions by these companies fall outside the protection of the First Amendment because such conduct is not itself speech.
The Texas law would forbid social media companies with at least 50 million monthly active users from acting to "censor" users based on "viewpoint," and allows either users or the Texas attorney general to sue to enforce it.
Florida's law would constrain the ability of large platforms to exclude certain content by prohibiting the censorship or banning of a political candidate or "journalistic enterprise."
Another issue presented in the cases was whether the state laws unlawfully burden the free speech rights of social media companies by requiring them to provide users with individualized explanations for certain content-moderation decisions, including the removal of posts from their platforms.
This is not the first time the Supreme Court has addressed free speech rights in the digital age during its current term.
The justices on March 15 decided that government officials can sometimes be sued under the First Amendment for blocking critics on social media. In another case, the justices on June 26 declined to impose limits on the way Biden's administration may communicate with social media platforms, rejecting a First Amendment challenge to how U.S. officials encouraged the removal of posts deemed misinformation, including about elections and COVID.
Florida sought to revive its law after the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled largely against it. The industry groups appealed a decision by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the Texas law, which the Supreme Court blocked at an earlier stage of the case.
Reporting by John Kruzel; Editing by Will Dunham