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Legal Battle Over Social Media Returns To Lower Courts

Legal Battle Over Social Media Returns to Lower Courts

Legal Battle Over Social Media Returns to Lower CourtsLegal Battle Over Social Media Returns to Lower Courts
Legal Battle Over Social Media Returns to Lower Courts

July 2, 2024

  • The Supreme Court has postponed a final ruling on Texas and Florida laws aiming to regulate social media platforms as "common carriers"
  • The contested laws prevent perceived censorship of conservative viewpoints, requiring platforms to provide detailed content moderation explanations
  • By remanding the cases, the Supreme Court leaves the issue unresolved, highlighting the need for more developed records

The US Supreme Court recently avoided a definitive ruling on state laws from Texas and Florida designed to regulate social media platforms. These laws aim to limit the content moderation practices of platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter (now X) by categorizing them as "common carriers," a designation that would subject them to stringent regulations similar to those applied to telecommunications companies.

Background of the cases

The Florida law, known as the Stop Social Media Censorship Act, and the Texas law, HB 20, were introduced to prevent what state lawmakers perceived as censorship of conservative viewpoints on social media platforms. Both laws mandate that large social media companies cannot remove or suppress user content based on viewpoint and require detailed explanations for any content moderation decisions​.

Social media companies, represented by trade associations such as NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association, challenged these laws, arguing that they violate the First Amendment by infringing on the platforms' rights to exercise editorial judgment. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the social media companies, striking down the Florida law as unconstitutional. In contrast, the Fifth Circuit Court upheld the Texas law, creating a split that brought the issue to the Supreme Court​.

Supreme Court's deliberation

During the hearings, the Supreme Court justices expressed divergent views on whether social media platforms should be treated as common carriers. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito appeared more sympathetic to the idea that social media companies could be regulated in a manner akin to public utilities, which do not have the right to discriminate against users based on viewpoint. On the other hand, Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh raised concerns about the implications of such regulation on the platforms' editorial discretion​.

US Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar argued in favor of the social media companies, emphasizing that the laws infringe on the First Amendment rights of the platforms. She suggested that the content moderation decisions made by these platforms are a form of protected speech, similar to editorial decisions made by newspapers​.

Implications of the court's decision

The Supreme Court's decision to remand the cases for further consideration leaves the legal landscape unsettled. This move indicates that the Court is not yet ready to make a definitive ruling on the complex issues at play. By sending the cases back to lower courts, the justices have signaled the need for a more developed record and clearer legal arguments before a final decision can be rendered.

Should the Supreme Court eventually rule in favor of the state laws, social media platforms could face significant changes in how they manage content, potentially leading to a less moderated online environment. Conversely, a ruling in favor of social media companies would reinforce their ability to control the content on their platforms without state interference, maintaining the status quo of content moderation practices​.

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