Appeals Court Finds Florida’s Social Media Law Unconstitutional

A U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on Monday ruled that a 2021 Florida law targeting social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter unconstitutionally restricts the companies’ First Amendment rights.

Monday’s decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld most of a preliminary injunction imposed in June by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle.

“Put simply, with minor exceptions, the government can’t tell a private person or entity what to say or how to say it,” appellate Judge Kevin Newsom wrote in a 67-page unanimous opinion joined by Judges Gerald Tjoflat and Ed Carnes.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made the tech-targeting measure one of his top 2021 legislative priorities, accusing tech companies of having a liberal bias and censoring speech by Republicans.

The law, in part, sought to prevent large social media platforms from banning political candidates from their sites and to require companies to publish — and apply consistently — standards about issues such as banning users or blocking content.

NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association, groups that represent tech titans such as Twitter, Facebook and Google, filed the lawsuit.

The industry groups argued the measure violated the First Amendment rights of companies and would harm their ability to moderate content on the platforms.

Lawyers for the state maintained that the social media companies are quashing users’ speech rights.

But in Monday’s decision, Newsom repeatedly swatted down the state’s arguments.

“Not in their wildest dreams could anyone in the Founding generation have imagined Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or TikTok. But ‘whatever the challenges of applying the Constitution to ever-advancing technology, the basic principles of freedom of speech and the press, like the First Amendment’s command, do not vary when a new and different medium for communication appears,'” Newsom, who was appointed to the Atlanta-based appeals court by former President Donald Trump, wrote. “One of those ‘basic principles’ — indeed, the most basic of the basic — is that ‘(t)he Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment constrains governmental actors and protects private actors.'”

Even the largest social media companies “are ‘private actors’ whose rights the First Amendment protects,” the judge added.

The panel found that “it is substantially likely” that social media companies’ content moderation decisions “constitute protected exercises of editorial judgment, and that the provisions of the new Florida law that restrict large platforms’ ability to engage in content moderation unconstitutionally burden that prerogative.”

 

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