Federal judge blocks Florida social media law
TALLAHASSEE, Florida – Calling it “riddled with vagueness and ambiguity”, a federal judge on Wednesday blocked a new state law targeting social media giants like Facebook and Twitter that can deprive politicians and other users of their platforms .
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction as he sided with online industry groups NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association, which filed a lawsuit challenging the governor’s move Ron DeSantis and endorsed by Republican lawmakers this spring.
“The legislation currently at issue was an effort to curb social media providers deemed too big and too liberal. Balancing the exchange of ideas between private speakers is not a legitimate government interest, ”Hinkle wrote in Wednesday’s 31-page order.
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The controversial law seeks to stop major social media platforms from banning political candidates from their sites and to force companies to post — and consistently enforce — standards on issues such as user bans or blocking their content.
Industry groups have asked for an injunction to prevent the law from coming into force Thursday, arguing the measure violates the First Amendment rights of private companies and would hurt their ability to moderate content on their platforms.
Trying to reverse the First Amendment argument, state attorneys argued that social media platforms engage in censorship and violate users’ rights of expression.
But Hinkle rebuked the state for its position.
“First, the state said it was on the First Amendment side; the complainants are not. It might be a good sound sample. But the assertion is totally in contradiction with the accepted constitutional principles ”, wrote the judge.
The “concentration of market power among the big social media providers does not change the principles governing the First Amendment,” Hinkle wrote.
“Whatever one can say about the monopolistic behavior of the biggest suppliers, the Internet offers a greater opportunity for individuals to publicize their opinions — and for candidates to communicate directly with voters — than there was previously. before the arrival of the Internet, “he added.
Complainants “are likely to prevail over the merits of their claim that these laws violate the First Amendment,” Hinkle wrote.
“Like previous First Amendment restrictions, this is a case of a house fire for roasting a pig,” the judge said.
Hinkle found that state law is also flawed as it only targets large companies, applying to platforms that have gross annual revenues of over $ 100 million or have at least 100 million “participants. Individual per month around the world, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
By law, companies that remove political candidates from platforms face fines of $ 250,000 per day for statewide candidates and $ 25,000 per day for other candidates.
“As the Supreme Court has recognized, discrimination between speakers is often indicative of content discrimination,” Hinkle wrote. “This is the case here. The state has not suggested any other basis for imposing these restrictions only on the largest suppliers. “
The new law includes a provision that protects theme park operators from restrictions.
Hinkle said the law “prima facie discriminates between otherwise identical speakers: between social media providers who do or do not meet the size requirements of the legislation and are not jointly owned with a theme park.”
DeSantis, a close ally of former President Donald Trump, stepped up a crackdown on social media after Twitter and Facebook blocked Trump from their platforms after his supporters rampaged on the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
“Day after day, our freedom of speech as conservatives is under attack by the ‘big tech’ oligarchs of Silicon Valley,” the governor said at a bill signing ceremony last month.
DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday evening. But the governor, a Harvard Law School graduate, said he believed the state would win in the lawsuit.
Hinkle’s order rejected the state’s arguments that the law was not subject to “strict scrutiny” by the court. Expression restrictions based on point of view and content come under scrutiny, the judge wrote.
“Laws which are apparently neutral in content, but which cannot be justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech, or which have been passed due to disagreement with the speaker’s message, must also pass examination. strict, ”he said. “These principles clearly require careful consideration here. The Florida laws involved are about as content-based as possible. “
To survive scrutiny, “a speech interference must further a compelling state interest and must be narrowly tailored to achieve that interest,” Hinkle noted.
“These statutes are far from close. Indeed, the state has made no argument to suggest that the statutes can survive scrutiny. They clearly can’t, ”he said.
NetChoice Vice President and General Counsel Carl Szabo praised Hinkle’s decision.
“When the state’s own attorneys cannot explain how the law works or even identify to whom it applies, Florida’s enforcement of the law simply cannot protect users, creators and users. advertisers of the tidal wave of offensive content and hate. speech that would surely follow, ”he said in a prepared statement. “The US justice system is designed to protect our constitutional rights, and today’s ruling is no different, ensuring that politically motivated Florida law does not force Floridians to endure racial epithets, homophobia aggressive, pornographic material, beheadings or other horrible content just for using the Internet. “
In a hearing on Monday, Hinkle littered lawyers with questions and defrauded the law.
“I’m not going to embarrass you and ask you if you’ve ever dealt with a law that has been more poorly drafted,” the judge asked the lawyers representing the DeSantis administration.