US Supreme Court sidesteps ruling on Republican-backed social media laws

Top court declines to rule on Texas and Florida laws, but defends social media platforms’ right to moderate content.

scotus
The US Supreme Court has declined to rule on contentious social media laws in Texas and Florida [Susan Walsh/AP]

The United States’s top court has declined to rule on whether Republican-backed laws limiting social media platforms’ ability to moderate content violate freedom of speech, kicking the issue back to lower courts.

The US Supreme Court on Monday ordered the Courts of Appeals for the 5th and 11th Circuits to review the laws in Texas and Florida again, arguing the courts had not properly addressed the statutes’ compatibility with the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

While the top court did not rule on the constitutionality of the laws, the unanimous decision defended the right of platforms such as Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube to curate the content on their platforms.

Writing for the court, Justice Elena Kagan said that social media companies should enjoy comparable editorial discretion as newspapers and that the First Amendment “does not go on leave when social media are involved”.

“The principle does not change because the curated compilation has gone from the physical to the virtual world,” Kagan wrote in an opinion signed by five of the nine justices.

Florida and Texas passed the laws curtailing platforms’ discretion to moderate content amid claims by conservatives that Big Tech routinely favours liberal perspectives and censors right-wing viewpoints.

Republican Governors Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott signed the laws months after Facebook and X banned former President Donald Trump over his posts about the January 6, 2021 storming of the US Capitol by his supporters.

President Joe Biden’s administration opposed the state laws, backing a legal challenge by the tech industry’s biggest lobby groups.

Following legal challenges, the 11th Circuit appeals court struck down Florida’s statute, while the 5th Circuit appeals court upheld the Texas law.

The top court’s decision leaves the Texas and Florida laws intact but on hold following injunctions imposed in lower courts.

Tech industry trade groups welcomed Monday’s decision.

Chris Marchese, director of the NetChoice Litigation Center, said the top court had affirmed the “Constitution’s unparalleled protections for free speech, including the world’s most important communications tool, the internet”.

Matthew Schruers, the president and CEO of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, said he was encouraged that the court had “made clear that states have no business attempting to tilt the marketplace of ideas in a favoured direction, though our task isn’t finished”.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he would keep fighting for his state’s law, calling censorship by tech companies “one of the biggest threats to free public discourse and election integrity”.

“No American should be silenced by Big Tech oligarchs,” Paxton said on X.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies