Federal judge blocks Florida social media censorship law
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Federal judge blocks Florida social media censorship law

US Judge Robert Hinkle from the Northern District of Florida (Tallahassee Division) Wednesday granted a preliminary injunction against Florida’s new social media law FL SB 7072 which, among other things, mandated social media companies to publish detailed standards for censorship, shadow-banning, and de-platforming of users. It also required that these standards be applied consistently and that users be informed of changes to rules, terms and agreements before implementation of such changes.

The lawsuit was filed by social media trade associations NetChoice LLC and Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA). They argued that the Act violates the free-speech clause of the First Amendment “by interfering with the providers’ editorial judgment, compelling speech, and prohibiting speech.”

Judge Hinkle held that while social media platforms are not entirely indistinguishable from newspapers or other traditional mediums for First Amendment purposes, they still exercise editorial scrutiny and engage in speech, thus subjecting the Florida statute to First Amendment scrutiny.

The statute contains viewpoint and content-based restrictions to speech which are subject to strict scrutiny as per prior precedent like Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Ariz. To pass strict scrutiny, the infringement on speech must have a compelling state interest and must be “narrowly tailored” towards achieving such interest. Judge Hinkle noted that the state of Florida is unlikely to succeed in establishing the same, not only because the leveling of the playing field for the exchange of ideas among private players is not a legitimate governmental interest but also that the statute’s restrictions itself are akin to “burning the house to roast a pig”.

Thus, he held that the plaintiffs are likely to prevail on the merits of their claim and if they are not granted a preliminary injunction, will face irreparable injury to their First Amendment rights.

Both CCIA and NetChoice welcomed the court’s ruling, with Matt Schruers of CCIA claiming it as “a win for internet users and the First Amendment,” and Steve DelBianco of NetChoice saying it “protects private businesses against the State’s demand that social media carry user posts that are against their community standards.”

The ruling prevented SB 7072 from taking effect on July 1, 2021. If Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis decides to appeal the ruling, this issue will proceed to the Eleventh Circuit.