Law to punish social media companies violates First Amendment

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A Florida law aimed at punishing social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter is an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment, a federal appeals court ruled Monday, handing a major victory to the companies that had been accused by the GOP Governor Ron DeSantis to discriminate against conservative thinking.

A three-judge panel of the 11th United States Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Atlanta, unanimously concluded that it was excessive for DeSantis and the Republican-led Florida Legislature to tell companies to social media how to conduct their work within the framework of the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of expression.

“Put simply, with few exceptions, the government cannot tell any person or private entity what to say or how to say it,” said Circuit Judge Kevin Newsom, appointed by former President Donald Trump, in the notice. “We believe it is very likely that social media companies – even the largest ones – are private actors whose rights are protected by the First Amendment.”

The decision upholds a similar decision by a judge in the Federal District of Florida on the law, which was signed by DeSantis in 2021. It was part of an overall conservative effort to portray social media companies as generally liberal and hostile to ideas outside of this view. , especially from the political right.

“Some of these massive, massive corporations in Silicon Valley wield power over our people that really has no precedent in American history,” DeSantis said during a bill signing ceremony in May 2021. “One of their main missions seems to be to suppress ideas.”

However, the appeals panel ruled that the tech companies’ actions were protected, with Judge Newsom writing that Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and others are “engaged in constitutionally protected expressive activity when moderating and organize the content they broadcast on their platforms”.

There was no immediate response to emails Monday afternoon from DeSantis’ press secretary or communications director about the decision. DeSantis is running for re-election this year and is considering a potential run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024. He was the first governor to sign a bill like this, although similar bills have been proposed in other other states.

One of them, in Texas, has been cleared to go into effect by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the tech companies involved are seeking an emergency U.S. Supreme Court review on the matter. opportunity to block it. No decision on this subject has been published immediately.

The Computer & Communications Industry Association, a nonprofit group representing technology and communications companies, said the decision represents a victory for internet users and freedom of expression in general, particularly regarding content. potentially offensive.

“When a digital service takes action against problematic content on its own site – whether it is extremism, Russian propaganda or racism and abuse – it is exercising its own right to free speech. “CCIA Chairman Matt Schruers said in a statement.

As signed into law, the law would give Florida’s attorney general the power to prosecute companies under the state’s deceptive and unfair trade practices law. It would also allow individual Floridians to sue social media companies for up to $100,000 if they believe they have been treated unfairly.

The bill targeted social media platforms that have more than 100 million monthly users, including online giants like Twitter and Facebook. But lawmakers created an exception for Walt Disney Co. and their apps by including that theme park owners would not be subject to the law.

The law would require major social media companies to publish standards on how they decide to “censor, deplatform and ban shadow”.

But the appeals court rejected almost all of the law’s mandates except for a few lesser provisions of the law.

“Social media platforms exercise editorial judgment that is inherently expressive. When platforms choose to remove users or posts, deprioritize content from viewers’ streams or search results, or sanction violations of their Community Standards, they are engaging in activity protected by the First Amendment,” Newsom wrote for the court.

Associated Press writers Mark Sherman in Washington and Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee contributed to this story.

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