Supreme Court puts off ruling on whether state social media laws violate the 1st Amendment

The Supreme Court on Monday said it is putting off a ruling for now on whether social media laws adopted by Florida and Texas violate the 1st Amendment.

Instead, the justices sent those cases back to lower courts to consider how those laws would apply in specific situations.

Speaking for the unanimous court, Justice Elena Kagan said the lawyers for NetChoice, the group that sued the states, and the lower court judges who ruled so far made a mistake by focusing broadly on free-speech principles without considering how the laws would apply in different circumstances.

“In sum, there is much work to do below on both these cases, given the facial nature of NetChoice’s challenges. But that work must be done consistent with the 1st Amendment, which does not go on leave when social media are involved,” she said.

All nine justices agreed with the outcome.

Monday’s decision leaves unresolved whether states may play a role in deciding what appears on popular platforms that are seen by tens of millions of viewers.

The two largest red states had passed laws to fine and punish platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter (now X) and Instagram for what they said was “censoring” posts that appeal to conservatives.

The Florida and Texas laws under review arose from complaints three years ago that President Trump had been discriminated against or unfairly blocked by social media sites, including Twitter.

In 2021, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed his state’s first-in-the-nation law and said it targeted the “Big Tech censors” who “discriminate in favor of the dominant Silicon Valley ideology.”

The measure, adopted before billionaire Elon Musk purchased Twitter and changed its name to X, applies to social media sites with more than $100 million in annual revenue or more than 100 million users.

It authorizes lawsuits for damages for “unfair censorship” and large fines if a social media site “deplatforms” a candidate for office.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a somewhat broader bill a few months later, saying “conservative speech” was being threatened. It says a social media platform with more than 50 million users in the United States “may not censor … or otherwise discriminate against expression” of users based on their viewpoint.

NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Assn. sued to challenge both laws on free-speech grounds, and both laws were put on hold, including by a 5-4 order from the Supreme Court.

The drive to restrict social media is heating up in many states.

Last week, the court in a 6-3 vote threw out a lawsuit brought by Republican state attorneys that accused the Biden administration of censoring social media.

The administration said it had merely alerted sites about dangerous disinformation about vaccines and COVID-19. Justice Amy Coney Barrett said the state attorneys did not show that Facebook and other social media platforms removed postings because they were pressured to do so by the government.

Last year, the California Legislature adopted a measure to prohibit online companies from collecting and selling data on children and teenagers, but it was blocked on 1st Amendment grounds by a federal judge in San Jose.

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