US Supreme Court Blocks Controversial Texas Social Media Law

The US Supreme Court has blocked the controversial Texas social media law HB 20, in a landmark case is being closely watched by the tech industry.

HB 20 was signed into Texas law in September 2021, and it prohibits social media companies from “de-platforming” users based on their political views.

This, the tech industry argues, has a major impact on their content moderation operations, and could allow for hateful content to run rampant online.

The US Supreme Court. Image credit: US Supreme Court

Content moderation

In essence, the HB 20 law from Texas 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 (that ordinarily would be banned) 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.

It gives Texas officials or local residents the ability to sue social media firm over their moderation decisions.

HB 20 has been driven by the belief among the right wing in the US that social media companies are biased in their content moderation decisions against conservative viewpoints.

Last month the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals granted a request from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for a stay in NetChoice (a free speech champion for businesses) and CCIA (the Computer and Communications Industry Association) versus Texas AG Paxton.

The case then headed to the US Supreme Court for its decision.

That NetChoice and CCIA v. Paxton 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. Donald Trump resides in Florida.

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, until the US Appeal Court overturned that decision.

Supreme Court ruling

But now the highest court in the United States has reimposed the injunction blocking HB 20 from taking effect while federal courts decide whether it can be enforced.

The ruling was made by five justices on the court.

It should be noted that this is not a ruling on the merits of the law, and it is essentially a temporary pause on the law until federal courts make a ruling.

That said, any federal court ruling on whether to implement the injunction is likely to be either challenged by the Texas AG, or NetChoice and CCIA.

This means it is highly likely the Supreme court will eventually be asked to make a ruling about whether HB 20 is constitutional or not.

Reaction

The CCIA, which represents tech firms such as Amazon, Apple, BT, Facebook, Google, Intel, and Mozilla, welcomed the Supreme Court ruling.

“We are encouraged that this attack on First Amendment rights has been halted until a court can fully evaluate the repercussions of Texas’s ill-conceived statute,” said CCIA President Matt Schruers.

“This ruling means that private American companies will have an opportunity to be heard in court before they are forced to disseminate vile, abusive or extremist content under this Texas law,” said Schruers. “We appreciate the Supreme Court ensuring First Amendment protections, including the right not to be compelled to speak, will be upheld during the legal challenge to Texas’s social media law.”

“The Supreme Court noting the constitutional risks of this law is important not just for online companies and free speech, but for a key principle for democratic countries,” said Schruers.

“No online platform, website, or newspaper should be directed by government officials to carry certain speech,” Schruers concluded. “This has been a key tenet of our democracy for more than 200 years and the Supreme Court has upheld that.”

NetChoice also celebrated the news.

“The government cannot force American businesses to host and spread a mass murderer’s vile manifesto, Putin’s anti-West propaganda, or an antisemite’s Holocaust denial,” said Chris Marchese, Counsel at NetChoice.

“In passing HB 20, the Texas legislature ran roughshod over the First Amendment,” Marchese added, “so we’re relieved that users will remain protected from the flood of horrible content Texas would have unleashed on popular websites and services as the case proceeds in the district court.”

“Given the district court’s well-reasoned conclusion that Texas’ law is so likely to cause irreparable harm that it must be paused in its entirety, we are confident the courts will likewise strike it down,” Marchese concluded.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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