Federal judge blocks Texas law that would prevent social media companies from banning users for ‘viewpoint’

AUSTIN (Texas Tribune) — A federal judge on Wednesday blocked a Texas law that seeks to restrict how social media companies moderate their content and has been defended by Republicans who say the platforms are biased against conservatives.

The law, signed by Governor Greg Abbott on September 9, would ban platforms with more than 50 million monthly users in the United States from deleting a user on a “viewpoint” and require them to publicly post information. about content removal and account suspensions. It was to come into force on December 2.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman wrote that the First Amendment protects the right of social media platforms to moderate content and rejected the defendants’ argument that these companies are “common carriers.” Pitman also found certain aspects of the law to be “prohibitively vague.”

“This Court is satisfied that social media platforms, or at least those covered by [House Bill] 20, organize both users and content to convey a message about the type of community the platform seeks to foster and, as such, exercise editorial discretion over the content on their platform,” a writes Pitman.

NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association — two trade groups representing some of the biggest names in e-commerce and social media, including Google and Twitter — filed a lawsuit to block the law in September.

The presidents of both organizations then told reporters that the state could not force the platforms to host content that violates their community standards. In their lawsuit, the trade associations argue that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects websites from laws “imposing liability for good faith actions to restrict access to or availability of content they deem objectionable”.

In a press release Wednesday, NetChoice President and CEO Steve DelBianco called the decision a victory for free speech.

“[House Bill] 20 would unleash a tidal wave of offensive content and hate speech descending on users, creators and advertisers,” it said in a statement. “With today’s decision, social media can continue to provide high-quality services to Americans while protecting them from irresponsible users and offensive content.”

Proponents of the law say it ensures users’ political views are not censored. State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park — who authored the bill, known as House Bill 20 — compared tech companies to “public carriers” like phone companies or cable companies , which are prohibited from discriminating customers.

But a federal judge who blocked a similar law in Florida in June said such comparisons weren’t accurate. Thomas Leatherbury, director of the First Amendment Clinic at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, told the Texas Tribune in September that the Texas law was “clearly unconstitutional,” with the same flaws as the Florida law “and more. “.

By targeting only the biggest social media platforms, Leatherbury said the law violated the equal protection clause. The law largely prohibits email service providers from blocking messages based on their content, which Leatherbury says restricts email services’ First Amendment rights.

The Legislature passed the law after outcry from Republicans over perceived anti-conservative bias among big tech companies. That accusation grew when Twitter permanently banned former President Donald Trump for inciting violence and purged more than 70,000 accounts linked to dangerous conspiracy groups after the deadly January 6 attack on the US Capitol.

Disclosure: Google and Southern Methodist University financially supported The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the journalism of the Tribune. Find a full list here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at www.texatribune.org. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that educates — and engages with — Texans about public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues.

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