By Kurt Anderson Associated Press
ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – Florida law designed to penalize social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment, a federal appeals court ruled Monday, bringing a big victory to companies accused by Republican Gov. Ron DeSanti. to discriminate against conservative thought.
A three-member panel of the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. District Court of Appeals unanimously concluded that DeSantis and the Republican-led Florida legislature were excessive in telling social media companies how to do their job under the Constitution’s Freedom of Speech Guarantee. .
“Simply put, with few exceptions, the government cannot tell a private or legal entity what to say or how to say it,” District Judge Kevin Newsham, who was appointed to former President Donald Trump, said in a statement. “We believe that it is very likely that social media companies – even the largest ones – are private participants whose rights are protected by the First Amendment.
The ruling confirms a similar decision by a Florida federal district judge on a law signed by DeSantis in 2021. It was part of an overall conservative effort to portray social media companies as generally liberal and hostile to ideas beyond that perspective, especially from the political right.
“Some of these massive, massive Silicon Valley companies are exercising power over our people that is truly unprecedented in American history,” DeSantis said during the bill’s signing ceremony in May 2021. “One of their main missions seems to be to suppress ideas. “
However, the Appeals Committee ruled that technology companies were protected, with Judge Newsham writing that Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and others “engage in constitutionally protected expression when moderating and curating content they distribute on their platforms.”
There was no immediate response to emails Monday afternoon from the DeSantis spokesman or communications director about the decision. DeSantis is running for re-election this year and expects a potential candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024. He was the first governor to sign a bill like this, although similar ones have been proposed in other states.
One of them, in Texas, was allowed to take effect by the 5th U.S. District Court of Appeals, and the technology companies involved there are seeking an urgent review by the U.S. Supreme Court to block it. A decision on this was not announced immediately.
The Computer and Communications Industry Association, a non-profit group representing technology and communications companies, said the decision was a victory for Internet users and freedom of speech in general – especially in terms of potentially offensive content.
“When a digital service takes action against problematic content on its own website – whether it is extremism, Russian propaganda or racism and abuse – it exercises its own right to free expression,” CCIA President Matt Schroers said in a statement.
As passed, the law will give the Attorney General of Florida the power to prosecute companies under the State’s Fraudulent and Unfair Commercial Practices Act. It will also allow some Florida residents to sue social media companies for up to $ 100,000 if they believe they have been treated unfairly.
The bill targets social media platforms that have more than 100 million users a month, including online giants such as Twitter and Facebook. But lawmakers have made an exception for Walt Disney Co. and their applications, including that theme park owners will not be subject to the law.
The law will require major social media companies to publish standards on how they choose to “censor, deplatform and ban in the shadows.”
But the appellate court rejected almost all of the law’s mandates, with the exception of a few minor provisions in the law.
“Social media platforms exercise editorial judgment, which is inherently expressive. “When the platforms decide to remove users or posts, remove the priority of content in viewers’ shows or search results, or sanction violations of their community standards, they engage in activities protected by the First Amendment,” Newsham told the court.
Associated Press writers Mark Sherman in Washington and Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee contributed to this story.