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Supreme Court puts Florida and Texas social media laws on hold

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday put two social media laws on hold, sending the Texas and Florida cases back to lower courts for more review. Both laws sought to regulate social media platforms.
Anna Rose Layden
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday put two social media laws on hold, sending the Texas and Florida cases back to lower courts for more review. Both laws sought to regulate social media platforms.

The Supreme Court on Monday put a pair of controversial social media laws on hold, sending the cases to lower courts for further review.

The justices unanimously agreed to return the Texas and Florida cases Moody v. NetChoice and NetChoice v. Paxton to lower courts for analysis, but in doing so, it prompted five separate opinions.

Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Elena Kagan wrote: "The parties have not briefed the critical issues here, and the record is underdeveloped,” Kagan wrote.

While the justices ordered a second look at the case by lower courts, tech companies have reason to celebrate the ruling, according to Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law.

The court signaled that social media companies have a First Amendment right to moderate content, and that responding to that with government censorship is not the right answer.

"Really the enemy here isn’t the private entities ‘censorship,’ it’s the government’s censorship," Goldman said in an interview. "And by locating the problem with the government’s censorship, [the court] made clear that the government has to butt out."

The question before the high court was considered a significant First Amendment case that had the potential to rewrite the rules of road for online free speech.

It all started when former President Trump was kicked off of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.

In response, lawmakers in Florida and Texas passed state laws barring social media sites from banning or restricting the reach of political candidates, claiming that conservative voices have been censored by tech companies.

The laws came despite evidence that, often times, the opposite is true, as right-wing commentators have become especially skilled at using social media as a megaphone.

During oral arguments in the case in February, the justices grappled with whether Twitter, now X, and Meta, have created what amounts to a modern-day public square that distinguishes them from other private companies.

Another point of discussion centers on whether social media companies should be considered “common carriers,” like a public utility, such as a telephone company, and therefore should be regulated similarly. For instance, a phone company cannot stop a person from making a call.

The First Amendment prevents the government from interfering in how private companies allow or suppress speech.

And the question before the court was whether the state laws preventing the platforms from doing something like banning Trump again would represent a violation of the First Amendment.

Lawyers for the tech companies say forcing them to allow accounts they think should be banned infringes on their First Amendment rights. Past legal cases have also established that social media sites have a First Amendment right to decide what is and is not allowed to be published on their own platforms.

Silicon Valley has argued that without that discretion, including the ability to suspend or block users, social media sites would be glutted with spam, hate speech and other unsavory content.

The laws in both Texas and Florida allow users to sue platforms over alleged censorship, which is in direct conflict with federal law.

Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, technology companies are shielded from lawsuits that could arise from content hosted by platforms. The law also provides tech companies wide latitude in patrolling speech on their sites.

Section 230 has become a bipartisan punching bag. Conservatives argue the law gives platforms a free pass to censor right-wing perspectives, whereas liberals say it allows big social media firms to escape accountability for the rise of hate speech, disinformation and other harmful content.

But on Monday, Goldman of Santa Clara University said the high court re-affirmed tech platforms' right to make their own editorial decisions free from government intervention.

"It’s simply the fact that internet services make the same kind of editorial decisions as traditional publishers, and been fully protected by the First Amendment," Goldman said. "And the Supreme Court has now given voice to that general principle."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.