AUSTIN (Texas Tribune) — A federal judge on Wednesday blocked a Texas law that seeks to restrict how social media companies moderate their content and was championed by Republicans who say the platforms are biased against conservatives.
The law, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott on Sept. 9, would ban platforms with more than 50 million monthly users in the U.S. from removing a user over a “viewpoint” and require them to publicly report information about content removal and account suspensions. It was set to take effect Dec. 2.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman wrote that the First Amendment protects social media platforms’ right to moderate content and rejected the defendants’ argument that such companies are “common carriers.” Pitman also ruled that some aspects of the law were “prohibitively vague.”
“This Court is convinced that social media platforms, or at least those covered by [House Bill] 20, curate both users and content to convey a message about the type of community the platform seeks to foster and, as such, exercise editorial discretion over their platform’s content,” Pitman wrote.
NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association — two trade groups representing some of the biggest names in e-commerce and social media, including Google and Twitter — filed a suit to block the law in September.
The presidents of both organizations told reporters then that the state cannot force platforms to host content that violates their community standards. In their lawsuit, the trade associations argue Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects websites from laws “imposing liability for good faith actions to restrict access to or availability of content that they consider objectionable.”
In a Wednesday press release, NetChoice President and CEO Steve DelBianco called the ruling a victory for free speech.
“[House Bill] 20 would unleash a tidal wave of offensive content and hate speech crashing onto users, creators, and advertisers,” he said in a statement. “Thanks to the decision made today, social media can continue providing high-quality services to Americans while simultaneously keeping them safe from irresponsible users and offensive content.”
Supporters of the law say it ensures that users’ political views go uncensored. State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park — who authored the bill, known as House Bill 20 — compared tech companies to “common carriers” like phone companies or cable providers, which are barred from customer discrimination.
But a federal judge who blocked a similar Florida law in June said such comparisons aren’t accurate. Thomas Leatherbury, the director of the First Amendment Clinic at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, told The Texas Tribune in September that the Texas law is “clearly unconstitutional,” with the same flaws as the Florida law “and then some.”
By targeting only the largest social media platforms, Leatherbury said the law violates the equal protection clause. The law largely prohibits electronic mail service providers from blocking messages based on their content, which Leatherbury said restricts email services’ First Amendment rights.
The Legislature passed the law after outcry from Republicans over perceived anti-conservative bias among major tech companies. That charge grew when Twitter permanently banned former President Donald Trump for inciting violence and purged over 70,000 accounts linked to dangerous conspiracy groups after the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection attack of the U.S. Capitol.
Disclosure: Google and Southern Methodist University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at www.texastribune.org. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.