Wednesday, January 19, 2022
Jan. 19, 2022

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Free speech goes for companies, too: Federal judge blocks Texas social media law

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AUSTIN, Texas — A federal judge in Austin has blocked Texas’ new social media law — which targets Twitter, Facebook and other large platforms that Republicans accuse of censoring conservatives — as an unconstitutional violation of the companies’ free speech rights.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman said the law known as House Bill 20, which prohibits large social media companies from censoring users based on their viewpoints, interferes with the platforms’ editorial discretion and their First Amendment right to moderate the third-party content they disseminate.

“HB 20 prohibits virtually all content moderation, the very tool that social medial platforms employ to make their platforms safe, useful, and enjoyable for users,” Pitman wrote in an order released Wednesday night.

The law was to take effect Thursday. Texas officials are expected to appeal.

In his order granting a preliminary injunction against enforcing HB 20, Pitman said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled several times that private companies can use editorial judgment to choose whether to publish certain content — and cannot be compelled by the government to publish other content.

In addition, HB 20 allows users to sue if they are blocked from posting on a large platform or their posts are removed. That threat, Pitman said, opens the companies to a myriad of lawsuits based on millions of individual editorial decisions, chilling the platforms’ from following their content-moderation policies.

“Using YouTube as an example, hate speech is necessarily ‘viewpoint’ based, as abhorrent as those viewpoints may be. And removing such hate speech and assessing penalties against users for submitting that content is ‘censorship’ as defined by HB 20,” Pitman wrote.

The judge also took exception to the law’s focus on social media companies with at least 50 million users a month.

That standard allowed HB 20 to improperly target companies that lawmakers and Gov. Greg Abbott accused of being biased against conservative viewpoints, Pitman said, noting that the Texas Senate shot down a Democrat’s proposed amendment that would have lowered the law’s user threshold to include Parler and Gab, sites popular with conservatives.

The Computer and Communications Industry Association, which filed suit against HB 20 with NetChoice on behalf of their social media members, praised the ruling.

“Without this temporary injunction, Texas’ social media law would make the internet a more dangerous place by tying the hands of companies protecting users from abuse, scams or extremist propaganda,” said Matt Schruers, president of the computer association.

“The First Amendment ensures that the government can’t force a citizen or company to be associated with a viewpoint they disapprove of, and that applies with particular force when a state law would prevent companies from enforcing policies against Nazi propaganda, hate speech and disinformation from foreign agents,” Schruers said.

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