Texas Social Media Law Restored By US Appeals Court

Censorship, freedom of speech © Melinda Fawver Shutterstock 2012

Social networking firms can be sued by Texas officials or local residents over moderation decisions, after Appeals Court restores local law

A US Appeals Court ruling has allowed a controversial Texas social media law to take effect from Wednesday this week.

On Wednesday the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals granted a request from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for a stay in NetChoice and CCIA v. Paxton, CNN reported.

That case references a similar social media law that was passed in Florida in May 2021 – designed by that state’s republican governor, to prevent social media firms from ‘deplatforming’ political figures.

Free speech censorship gagging © Margaret M Stewart Shutterstock

Appeals Court ruling

That Florida law came after former US President Donald Trump was banned on almost all social networking platforms for his role in the storming of the Capitol building on 6 January 2021, and the resulting deaths and injuries.

Florida’s law however was suspended by a federal judge in June last year, who ruled that it violated the US First Amendment right to free speech.

NetChoice and the CCIA were those successful in blocking that Florida law last year. Both then also managed to block Texas HB 20 as well.

But on Wednesday a US Appeal Court granted Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request for a stay in NetChoice and CCIA v. Paxton.

This is bad news for social networking firms and any of its moderation decisions, as HB 20 allows Paxton’s office (or Texas residents) to sue social networks that moderate content based on “the viewpoint of the user or another person,” among other offences – language that potentially makes basic moderation decisions legally risky.

Essentially HB 20 gives legal powers to those who believe social networking firms are trying to allegedly censor their views or content.

The law therefore creates enormous uncertainty about how social media firms such as Facebook, Twitter etc, will actually function in the state of Texas.

The Appeal Court ruling also sets the stage for what could be a Supreme Court showdown over First Amendment rights.

Texas HB 20

It was in September 2021 that the governor of Texas signed the bill prohibiting social media companies from “de-platforming” users based on their political views.

The HB 20 law prohibits social media firms (defined as having 50 million active monthly users and that rely primarily on user-generated content) from banning, demonetising or otherwise restricting content based on “the viewpoint of the user or another person”, whether or not that viewpoint is expressed on the platform itself.

The social media law also requires social media firms to disclose how they promote and moderate content and mandates transparency reports, similar to those already produced by Facebook, Google and others.

A separate provision requires social media companies to evaluate illegal content within 48 hours of being notified of it.