Federal judge temporarily blocks Texas law regulating social media

On Wednesday evening, a federal judge temporarily blocked the Texas law regulating how social media companies can moderate content, hours before it goes into effect.

Siding with two tech business groups that had sued the law, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman banned Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office from enforcing the measure, which bans large social media companies from banning or suspend users based on their point of view. Republican lawmakers who lobbied for the law argued that it would thwart perceived efforts by Facebook, Twitter and other platforms to censor or silence conservatives, including former President Donald Trump.

In a 30 page review, Pitman wrote that the law, known as House Bill 20, violates the constitutional right of social media platforms to “speak out when they disagree or oppose content” and “cools” their rights. freedom of expression by allowing users to sue companies if they believe their point of view has been wrongly censored.

“Social media platforms have a First Amendment right to moderate the content on their platforms,” Pitman wrote, citing previous Supreme Court rulings which he said said “private companies that use editorial judgment to choose whether or not to publish content… cannot be coerced by the government to publish other content.

Paxton’s office is expected to appeal Pitman’s decision to the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considered one of the most conservative courts in the country. In October, the court reinstated Texas’ anti-abortion law shortly after Pitman temporarily blocked it.

At the very least, Pitman’s decision will delay enforcement of the social media law, which was due to go into effect on Thursday. Governor Greg Abbott enacted HB 20 in September, shortly after lawmakers sent the bill to his office.

Texas social media law is second such measure to be overturned by a court, after a federal judge earlier this year blocked a similar law in Florida, calling it “riddled with vagueness and ambiguity”. Pitman also wrote that parts of HB 20 are “prohibitively vague,” including its definition of “censorship” and a provision that allows Paxton’s office to seek an injunction against “potential violations” of the law.

“It seems nearly impossible for the court for a social media platform – which has at least 50 million users – to determine whether a single piece of content has ‘equal access or visibility’ to another element. of content given the sheer number of users and content. Pitman wrote.

Pitman also rejected the state’s argument that large social media sites have a major influence on the public flow of information and therefore should be classified as public carriers – entities such as telecommunications and service providers. utilities that cannot discriminate against customers.

Industry groups – NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association – had argued that the argument did not hold up because there are many ways to disseminate information online outside of social media platforms, preventing companies from being considered. like public carriers.

Steve DelBianco, President and CEO of NetChoice, said HB 20 “would trigger a tidal wave of offensive content and hate speech descending on users, creators and advertisers.”

“The US justice system has protected our constitutional right to free speech today by ensuring that politically motivated Texas law does not see the light of day and forces Americans around the world to endure racial epithets, aggressive homophobia,” pornography, beheadings or other horrible content just to scroll online, ”DelBianco said in a statement.

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