US Supreme Court blocks Texas ‘censorship’ social media law

The US Supreme Court has blocked a social media law in Texas that could have prohibited platforms such as Facebook and Twitter from taking down content including misinformation and extremism.

In an order on Tuesday, the Supreme Court froze the so-called “censorship law” in Texas, known as HB20, which seeks to ban Big Tech platforms from moderating content based on a user’s political viewpoint, according to its Republican advocates.

Texas governor Greg Abbott has argued the law would protect free speech and prevent the silencing of conservative voices, echoing long-held concerns from former president Donald Trump and his allies.

But in a 5-4 decision, the justices decided to stay the law while several tech trade associations challenge its constitutionality, following a request by NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association.

In their petition, the trade associations have argued that the law is an “an unprecedented assault on the editorial discretion” of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest that would “fundamentally transform their business model and services”, in violation of the First Amendment.

The associations and other critics of the law have also complained the rules would allow potentially harmful misinformation, hate speech and extremism to flourish on the platforms.

The legal proceedings are an important test case that could shape the future balance between social media platforms’ right to decide on the content they wish to host versus the rights of individual users’ speech.

Conservative justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch voted against blocking the law, as did one member of the court’s liberal wing, Elena Kagan. Alito penned a dissent — joined by the two other conservatives, but not Kagan — noting that the case “concerns issues of great importance that will plainly merit this court’s review”.

He added: “It is not at all obvious how our existing precedents, which predate the age of the internet, should apply to large social media companies.”

The Texas law also requires platforms with more than 50mn users to allow users to appeal moderation decisions and disclose more information about their moderation practices — or risk being sued by either users or the Texan attorney-general.

A federal judge last December blocked the enforcement of the law while the tech associations challenged its constitutionality. However, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overruled that decision in May, prompting the tech groups to then petition the Supreme Court.

Last week, another federal appeals court, the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, blocked large parts of a similar social media law in Florida, which would have made it illegal for platforms to ban politicians.

Source: Financial Times

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