The U.S. Supreme Court today moved to block Texas from immediately implementing a new law that’s intended to prevent large social media platforms from censoring user’s posts based on their political views.
In a written order, the Supreme Court granted an emergency request by two technology industry trade groups to temporarily block the law while they challenge it in the lower courts. The order followed a tight 5-4 vote in favor of blocking the law, which critics say will lead to a tsunami of hate speech and misinformation on major social media platforms such as Facebook, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube.
The controversial HB 20 law was signed by Texas Governor Gregg Abbot in September and is designed to prevent social media firms with more than 50 million monthly active users from censoring people based on their viewpoints. Under the law, Texas residents and anyone doing business in the state can sue social media platforms that censor their posts and seek a court order to prevent content removal. The law, which vests enforcement authority with the Texas state attorney general, does not allow plaintiffs to seek damages.
Republicans who support the law argue that social media content moderators and screening algorithms have been abused in order to try and silence conservatives and more controversial viewpoints, though social media firms deny this. They say it will ensure people’s First Amendment rights are protected, and if people do find they have been blocked or their views have been suppressed, they will have legal recourse. However, NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association, the two industry groups which filed the emergency request to ban the law, say it is an unconstitutional assault on social media site’s freedom of speech and business practices.
“This ruling means that private American companies will have an opportunity to be heard in court before they are forced to disseminate vile, abusive or extremist content under this Texas law,” Matt Schruers, president of the CCIA, told the Wall Street Journal. “No online platform, website, or newspaper should be directed by government officials to carry certain speech.”
The case is seen as a key test of governmental power when it comes to setting rules for online discourse in the U.S., one that exposes the delicate balancing act required between an individual’s rights to free expression and the constitutional speech rights of tech firms. It’s an issue that the Supreme Court will most likely have to debate again in the months ahead.
Last December, a federal district judge in Austin issue a preliminary injunction against HB 20, ruling that social media firms have a First Amendment right to moderate content that’s disseminated on their platforms as they see fit. Then in May, a split three-judge panel of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans issued a stay, allowing Texas to begin enforcing the law while litigation continued. Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court overturns that decision, which means HB 20 cannot yet be enforced.
The complex case also raises questions over whether or not Texas law is preempted by federal legal protections for online platforms. Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, internet platforms have the authority to police their sites as they see fit.
In today’s Supreme Court ruling, Justice Samuel Alito filed a dissent joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch. Justice Elena Kagan also dissented.
Justice Alito said it was premature for the Supreme Court to intervene over what he described as a “ground-breaking Texas law” that’s designed to address the ability of dominant social media corporations to shape public discussion around political issues. He said that blocking Texas from enforcing the law was an “intrusion on state sovereignty”. He added that he has not yet formed a “definitive view” of the issues involved, stressing it’s not obvious how existing precedents that predate the internet can be applied to large social media firms.
Meanwhile, battles are taking place in other U.S. states. Judges blocked a similar law in Florida last week, ruling that it would ask companies to go against their own policies.