A federal judge struck down the recent Florida legislation aimed at reigning in the censorship powers of Big Tech, hours before it was set to go into effect.
Within days of Governor DeSantis signing the bill into law in May, NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA) filed a lawsuit, representing the biggest names in social media (such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Amazon). They argued that the new law is a violation of their First Amendment rights as private companies.
On June 30, Judge Robert L. Hinkle of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida ruled in favor of NetChoice and CCIA, issuing a preliminary injunction on the law after determining that it violates the First Amendment and contradicts Section 230.
Judge Hinkle wrote that the law was “riddled with imprecision and ambiguity,” and that the plaintiffs were “likely to prevail on the merits of their claim that these statutes violate the First Amendment.”
Further, he stated: “Balancing the exchange of ideas among private speakers is not a legitimate governmental interest.”
Beginning July 1, the law would have provided a legal route for Florida citizens to sue a social media company if they felt their content was unfairly censored. It would have also imposed heavy fines should a social media company deplatform a Florida political candidate.
Supporters of the law argue that some measure is necessary to protect the freedoms of Florida citizens who are finding themselves censored online for political views that run counter to Silicon Valley. Social media spokespeople, on the other hand, contend that the law would have prevented social media companies from doing the important work of protecting online users from illegal and harmful content.
In this tug-of-war over the First Amendment, Judge Hinkle argued that private institutions are not bound to protect the free speech rights of citizens in the same way the government is:
The First Amendment says “Congress” shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press. The Fourteenth Amendment extended this prohibition to state and local governments. The First Amendment does not restrict the rights of private entities not performing traditional, exclusive public functions.
But the issue is further complicated by the cooperation between those private companies and government officials in censoring certain kinds of speech online.
For instance, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told the press earlier this month that the Biden administration is “flagging posts for Facebook that spread disinformation” in an effort to promote “accurate information and boost trusted content.” These comments raised the ire of free speech advocates, who argued that the government having a say in what is or is not posted on a private social media platform is a clear violation of the First Amendment.
Ben Wizner, Director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, told independent journalist Glenn Greenwald that the Constitution “prohibits the government from using its immense authority to coerce private actors into censoring on its behalf.”
NetChoice’s general counsel, Carl Szabo, praised Judge Hinkle’s ruling, saying that it ensures that “Florida’s politically motivated law does not force Floridians to endure racial epithets, aggressive homophobia, pornographic material, beheadings, or other gruesome content just to use the internet.”
Florida House Representative John Snyder told Mind Matters in May, however, that the argument that social media would no longer have authority over truly objectionable material is a misunderstanding. “What this bill does,” Snyder explained, “is say that social media companies must act fairly and apply their standards equally across the board. We do not want them targeting a specific thought process or viewpoint.”
In other words, the law would not have prevented social media from censoring content as allowed under Section 230. It would simply have provided a legal remedy for citizens who feel their content was censored unjustifiably – a remedy that does not currently exist.
DeSantis’s office called the ruling disappointing and announced that they would “immediately appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.”