Texas social media content law blocked by Supreme Court

(CNN) — The United States Supreme Court has temporarily blocked a sweeping Texas law that restricts the ability of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to moderate content on their platforms.

By a 5-4 vote on Tuesday, the justices granted an emergency request from the tech industry to block a lower court order that would have allowed the law to apply, pending legal challenges.

In an unusual line-up, the five majority justices were Chief Justice John Roberts, Stephen Breyer, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and Sonia Sotomayor.

Liberal Justice Elena Kagan was joined by conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, who reportedly denied the request.

The Supreme Court order is a loss for Texas. The state has argued that its law, HB 20, which prohibits large social media companies from blocking, banning or demoting posts or accounts, does not violate the First Amendment.

The majority did not explain its thinking and Kagan did not outline his own reasoning for his vote to allow the law to remain in place.

But Alito, writing for himself, Thomas and Gorsuch, criticized the majority decision. He said the case raises questions of “great importance” about a “groundbreaking” Texas law that addresses “the power of mainstream social media companies to shape public debate on important issues of the day.” He stressed that he had not formed a “definitive opinion” on the new legal issues that arise from the law, but that he would not have intervened to block the law “at this stage of the proceedings”.

“Texas should not be required to seek prior authorization from federal courts before its laws take effect,” Alito wrote.

Opponents of HB 20, including the tech industry, have argued that the legislation violates the constitutional rights of tech platforms to make editorial decisions and to be free from government-mandated speech.

The state argued that HB 20 does not violate the First Amendment because the law seeks to regulate the conduct of tech platforms toward their users, not corporate speech, and seeks to designate them as “common carriers” similar to railways and telephone companies. .

The broader case is seen as a bellwether for the social media industry and could determine whether tech platforms should scale back their content moderation beyond Texas and allow a wide range of content that their terms currently prohibit.

The Computer and Communications Industry Association, one of the groups behind the emergency petition, said the decision upholds more than 200 years of free speech principles against government encroachments. to private speech.

“We appreciate the Supreme Court’s guarantee that First Amendment protections, including the right not to be compelled to speak, will be upheld in the legal challenge to Texas’ social media law,” the president said. CCIA, Matt Schruers. “The Supreme Court noting the constitutional risks of this law is important not just for online businesses and free speech, but a key principle for democratic countries.”

Chris Marchese, an attorney at NetChoice – another group behind the emergency petition – said the Texas law was a “constitutional wreck”.

“We are relieved that the First Amendment, the open internet, and the users who depend on it remain protected from Texas’ unconstitutional excesses,” Marchese said.

CNN has reached out to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for comment.

In a separate dispute, another federal appeals court suspended most of a similar law outside Florida, creating a divided circuit on the issue. Often the Supreme Court is more likely to interfere in a dispute if the lower courts are in direct conflict.

The Texas law is being challenged by advocacy groups representing the tech industry.

In court documents, the groups called the law “an unprecedented assault on the editorial discretion of private websites.” They warn that this would “force the platforms to spread all sorts of objectionable views – like Russia’s propaganda claiming its invasion of Ukraine is justified, Islamic State propaganda claiming extremism is justified, neo-Nazi or KKK screeds denying or supporting the Holocaust, and encouraging children to engage in risky or unhealthy behaviors like eating disorders.

In response, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had argued that HB 20 did not infringe on tech platforms’ speech rights.

The legal battle has drawn “friends of the court” submissions from interested parties, including groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP who had urged the Court to block the law, arguing that it will “transform the platforms of social media into online repositories of vile, graphic, harmful, hateful, and fraudulent content that are of no use to individuals currently engaging in these communities.

A group of states led by Florida also filed a case with the court defending the Texas law. The amicus curiae brief, which was written by a dozen states including Alabama, Arizona, Kentucky and South Carolina, among others, reflects how the legal battle over HB 20 has nationwide ramifications.

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