Supreme Court blocks Texas law on social media ‘censorship’

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The Supreme Court has suspended a Texas law banning online platforms from restricting user posts based on their political views, representing a major win for social media companies.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court granted an emergency stay request on Tuesday to a petition from tech industry groups that petitioned to block a law they said would violate companies’ First Amendment rights to control what content they disseminate on their websites and platforms.

While the Texas law (HB 20) had gone into effect on May 11 following an appeals court decision, no one has filed lawsuits under the law yet. The Supreme Court block on the law will remain in effect as the case moves through the 5th U.S. Circuit of Court of Appeals.

Justice Samuel Alito’s dissent said: “Social media platforms have transformed the way people communicate with each other and obtain news. At issue is a ground-breaking Texas law that addresses the power of dominant social media corporations to shape public discussion of the important issues of the day.”

Victory for tech: The tech industry and its supporters, including the NAACP and groups representing LGBTQ people, had warned that the law could unleash a tide of hate speech, violent rhetoric and other extremist content on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

“We are encouraged that this attack on First Amendment rights has been halted until a court can fully evaluate the repercussions of Texas’s ill-conceived statute,” said Matthew Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which filed the petition.

Loss for Paxton: The stay is a blow for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has vocally argued that companies like Twitter and Facebook censor conservatives online. Texas governor Greg Abbott signed the law in September.

The Texas law is one of several Republican attempts at the state level to enjoin social media platforms from allegedly censoring conservative viewpoints. Florida also has a similar social media law (SB 7072) that has been blocked, and is under review by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the GOP-controlled legislatures of Michigan and Georgia have also advanced similar bills.

Colliding with anti-hate efforts: The Texas law could drastically change the way social media companies operate, forcing them to keep up certain racist, antisemitic and white supremacist speech that could be construed as “viewpoints” under the Texas law.

NetChoice and CCIA — the tech trade groups that filed the petition — say the Texas law violates their constitutionally protected right to decide what content they put on their platforms. The groups’ members include Facebook, Twitter and Google.

The content moderation debate: While far-right politicians — including former President Donald Trump and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) — claim their viewpoints are being unfairly repressed online, many liberals say the companies are not doing enough to remove hate speech and other extremist content. Social media companies argue that they don’t make content moderation decisions based on politics, and POLITICO’s analysis has found that some of the posts with the most engagement come from conservatives

Private lawsuits: Under the law, both the state of Texas and individual Texans are able sue companies if they “censor” an individual based on their viewpoints, geographic location by blocking, banning, removing, deplatforming, demonetizing or otherwise discriminating against expression.

Making its way through the courts: The ruling overturned the 5th Circuit’s decision to lift a previous injunction on the law from a lower district court. The Texas district court — which initially set the injunction — has not yet ruled on the underlying merits and constitutionality of the case. Once the district court rules, either side can again file appeals based on the merits of the case. The ruling was split, with Chief Justice John Roberts, along with Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett granting the stay. Justices Elena Kagan, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Alito dissented.

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