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Appeals Court Strikes Down Florida Social Media Law

Social media companies had a big win in Florida yesterday after the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a bill aiming to levy penalties against social media companies for blocking politicians and media.

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Yesterday a controversial Florida law that proposed levying fines and penalties against social media platforms for blocking content from political candidates and media organizations was ruled unconstitutional for violating the First Amendment.

Gov. Ron DeSantis originally signed the bill in May 2021. However, shortly after being signed, NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association sued the state, resulting in a judge blocking the bill because it violated Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Since then, the law has been under review in court until Monday, after a three-judge panel in the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals shared their decision in a 67-page opinion about the bill.

“Put simply, with minor exceptions, the government can’t tell a private person or entity what to say or how to say it,” said Circuit Judge Kevin Newsom in the document. “We hold that it is substantially likely that social media companies — even the biggest ones — are private actors whose rights the First Amendment protects.”

However, that doesn’t mean that the court struck down every part of the bill.

According to the document shared by the panel, some of the provisions listed in the legislation could stay in place, such as people banned from social media platforms being able to access their data for 60 days. Another approved provision is social media companies having to disclose their rules clearly to all users.

So, what does this all mean in the grand scheme of things?

“This ruling means platforms cannot be forced by the government to disseminate vile, abusive and extremist content under penalty of law,” Matt Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, told the Washington Post. “This is good news for Internet users, the First Amendment and free speech in a democracy,” at least in Florida.

Other states, however, have proposed similar legislation, with one state even successfully getting their version of the law reinstated and into effect.

That state is Texas. Last week, a federal appeals court reinstated the state’s version of social media censorship legislation prohibiting large social media companies from moderating user content based on their viewpoints.

Similar to Florida’s law, the legislation was on hold due to a lawsuit brought on by NetChoice and the CCIA. The tech advocacy groups claimed that the bill violated First Amendment rights.

However, now that the bill has been reinstated, Texas residents can sue social media companies like Facebook and Twitter for censoring their content.

“Right now, the Texas law is in effect, but no one exactly knows what that means, and no one knows what to do about it,” Jennifer Stisa Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, previously told Government Technology. “You look at experts discussing the effect of the bill on Twitter, and the one true thing you can say is it’s not clear what platforms are supposed to do or what is legal or illegal. It’s pretty chaotic.”

As a result, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the ACLU, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Center for Democracy and Technology and other advocacy groups filed requests with the U.S. Supreme Court to issue an emergency order to block the bill.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito will review the petitions regarding Texas’ law and decide its fate.

These court decisions could potentially be the swaying factor for other states to pass similar legislation, one industry expert said. However, only time will tell.

Each state’s appeals will be influential, said David Greene, the civil liberties director and senior staff attorney at EFF. If they are struck down, it could slow down the momentum of other states, but if one or both of them are upheld, there could be a wave of these types of laws.

With Florida’s law struck down, all eyes will be on the Supreme Court as it decides what to do about Texas’ bill.