The Supreme Court on Tuesday temporarily blocked a Texas law aimed at restricting social media platforms ability to moderate users’ content, a law supporters say promotes free speech but that critics say would compel platforms like Facebook and Twitter to tolerate extremism.
The court voted 5-4 to approve a request by tech trade groups NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA) to vacate a decision by a lower court to stay an injunction against the law while litigation over it proceeds.
The ruling came after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit unexpectedly overturned a ruling preventing Texas from enforcing the law, which would prohibit social media platforms from “censoring” users based on their “viewpoint,” whether expressed on or off the platform.
In a filing, NetChoice and CCIA claimed that the law would require platforms to broadcast propaganda by the likes of ISIS, the Kremlin and the KKK, driving away advertisers and requiring the junking of content moderation systems that cost billions of dollars to develop.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and other officials argued in a filing that social media platforms, having made themselves gatekeepers of the public square, apply heavy-handed and arbitrary censorship.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said that it’s “not at all obvious” how pre-internet rulings should be applied to social media platforms and argued that the Supreme Court’s intervention was premature.
What To Watch For
The law could ultimately go back into effect if the appeals court rules in favor of Texas.
The Texas law would not require social media platforms to allow all speech. Platforms would still be able to enabled to remove content that “directly incites” criminal activity or includes specific threats of violence against a person or group of people because of race, sex or other personal characteristics. Platforms would also still be allowed to remove content at the request of groups working to prevent the sexual exploitation of children or the harassment of sexual abuse survivors.
The Texas law was passed in 2021, spurred by complaints that platforms like Twitter and Facebook were censoring conservatives. The supposed liberal bias of these platforms created a market for right-leaning alternatives like Parler, Gab and Donald Trump’s Truth Social, which briefly became the most downloaded free app on Apple’s App Store despite extensive technical issues. However, none of these alternative platforms have grown to challenge the size of mainstream platforms like Twitter and Facebook, which command 229 million and 1.93 billion active users, respectively. Research has so far failed to confirm the popular impression that major social media platforms censor right-leaning users: Twitter’s internal research found that the platform tends to promote content from right-wing sources over content from left-wing sources, while an April study by researchers from MIT, the University of Exeter and Yale determined that, while Republicans were more likely to be banned from Twitter, this was because they were more likely to promote banned misinformation and not because Twitter was biased against them.