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Supreme Court declines to rule on Texas, Florida social media laws

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to rule on a case in which technology groups challenged laws in Texas and Florida that prevent social-media platforms from censoring users.

Moody v. Net Choice addressed laws passed by Republicans in Florida and Texas that aimed to regulate how social-media companies remove and label user content. Representing Facebook, YouTube, and others, NetChoice argued that such laws violated the First Amendment. Although the Eleventh Circuit and Fifth Circuit Courts previously ruled in favor of NetChoice, the Supreme Court on Monday sent the case back to lower courts in a 9-0 decision.

The trade association NetChoice, which brought the case on behalf of the major social-media platforms, “failed to provide many of the basic facts necessary to evaluate their challenges,” Justice Clarence Thomas said, cautioning that “while federal courts can judge the constitutionality of statutes, they may do so only to the extent necessary to resolve the case at hand.”

Justices referred the case back to lower courts to evaluate the scope of the laws’ applications, as NetChoice did not prove the laws facially unconstitutional. The Florida law prohibits social-media platforms from permanently banning any candidate for public office, while the Texas law prevents the tech platforms from barring any user for expressing a certain viewpoint.

Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justices John Roberts, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Brett Kavanaugh in part, delivered the majority opinion, and Justices Samuel Alito, Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch concurred, but took issue with parts of the majority.

“Texas has never been shy, and always been consistent, about its interest: The objective is to correct the mix of viewpoints that major platforms present,” Kagan wrote. “But a State may not interfere with private actors’ speech to advance its own vision of ideological balance.”

Florida governor Ron DeSantis previously called the state’s social-media regulation “protection against the Silicon Valley elites,” and Texas governor Greg Abbott similarly said that the lone-star state’s law would remedy “a dangerous movement by social media companies to silence conservative viewpoints and ideas.”

Net Choice, which was joined by the Computer & Communication Industry Association, argued that social-media platforms should benefit from the same constitutional protections that newspapers enjoy, and should therefore be protected from government censorship efforts.

A divided three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit rejected that argument, overturning a lower court’s ruling blocking the Texas law.

“Social media platforms exercise editorial judgment that is inherently expressive,” Judge Kevin Newsom wrote for the panel. “When platforms choose to remove users or posts, deprioritize content in viewers’ feeds or search results or sanction breaches of their community standards, they engage in First Amendment-protected activity.”

The Biden administration is backing the social-media companies, arguing that users will be deluged with so-called misinformation and “hate speech” if the companies’ lose the ability to censor content.

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