Connectivity

A Supreme Court decision on social media moderation is imminent

The results could clarify the content moderation obligations, if any, that the government can place on websites.
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Francis Scialabba

3 min read

The nation’s highest court is poised to rule on a pair of state laws that seek to regulate the content that’s displayed on social media platforms. The outcome could dramatically reshape the user experience on some of the internet’s most popular websites.

Now that the Supreme Court justices have heard arguments about Florida and Texas laws that seek to limit perceived censorship of conservative content on large platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and X, the court is expected to release a ruling before its summer recess.

As Tech Brew previously reported, the laws at issue would require social media platforms to, among other things, disclose explanations for content-moderation decisions. The Texas law specifies that platforms can’t remove content based on a user’s viewpoint, and under the Florida law, platforms could accrue fines if they deplatform political candidates.

The stage is set for the justices to consider whether this type of regulation from the states violates the First Amendment. The court could take one of several approaches, including cleanly tossing out the laws as First Amendment violations, punting the case back to the lower courts for additional fact-finding, or letting the laws stand, legal experts said during a June 11 press briefing about the looming decision.

The latter outcome could signal a “seismic” shift in the way that speech on the internet is analyzed—and protected—under the First Amendment, Kate Ruane, director of the Center for Democracy & Technology’s Free Expression Project, said at the event. The Center for Democracy & Technology filed an amicus brief urging the justices to reject the laws as free-speech rights violations.

It could also severely limit the way that people engage in important conversations online, she said.

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“Under these requirements, a platform that does not want to host, for example, pro-racist content, may have to choose to censor all discussion of race in order to be able to comply with these laws,” Ruane said during the press briefing. “We would like to see the court acknowledge that and acknowledge the First Amendment rights of users that are impacted by these laws if they went into effect in their decision, hopefully striking it down, but we really don’t know what they are going to do.”

Even though the laws are specific to Florida and Texas, a Supreme Court validation would likely translate into content-moderation changes across the country due to the national (and global) breadth of the internet.

“I think the incentive is definitely to squash them into complying everywhere, even if the state couldn’t enforce that,” Matt Wood, VP of policy and general counsel at Free Press, said at the event.

An outcome that lets the laws stand could also have implications for other cases involving internet regulation, including an upcoming case about online age verification, Ari Cohen, free speech counsel at TechFreedom, said at the briefing. His group filed an amicus brief arguing that the Texas and Florida laws improperly foist “common carriage” obligations on social media sites.

“It will be interesting to see how they frame it and whether they telegraph any particular attitudes toward that upcoming fight,” he said of the justices. “I long to see a term ahead where we’re not fighting over the soul of the internet, but I don’t see it anytime soon.”

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