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Supreme Court puts social media laws in Florida and Texas on hold

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

More Supreme Court news today, the High Court kept two social media laws in Florida and Texas on hold. The laws are an effort from Republican-led states to curb what they say is censorship of conservative voices on social media platforms. For more, we're joined now by NPR tech correspondent Bobby Allyn. Hi, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hey. OK, so tell us more about these two laws that the Supreme Court weighed in on today.

ALLYN: Sure. The laws were passed back in 2021 after former President Trump was suspended on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Remember, this was in the wake of the January 6 riot on the Capitol. And supporters of the law say, you know, conservative views have been censored on social media, and these laws were intended to address that from happening, right?

Now, it's worth noting that there's no real proof, Ailsa, that, you know, conservative voices have been systemically suppressed on social media, but the idea has energized lawmakers in Republican states, including in Florida and Texas here. And, you know, when those states passed laws, the tech industry sued, arguing that the laws are unconstitutional, since tech companies have a First Amendment right to police their own platforms. Federal appeals courts took a look and had split decisions. And so now the Supreme Court took on the case and issued a ruling.

CHANG: Right. And it sounds like in that ruling the justices basically punted. Like, they're returning these cases to the lower courts to decide the fate of these laws. So what exactly did this ruling from the Supreme Court lay out today?

ALLYN: That's right. Well, as you know, the justices voided federal appeals court decisions that were split and, as you mentioned, said the lower courts need to give the cases a second look, you know, with a real eye toward the First Amendment questions at play here. So no real resolution, but there is a good amount in the ruling that tech companies are celebrating.

I called up Eric Goldman. He's a professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law, and he pointed out that Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, signaled that social media platforms have a First Amendment right to moderate content. Goldman says conservatives might call that censorship, but the court here is saying government laws that require another type of censorship is actually worse.

ERIC GOLDMAN: Really, the enemy here isn't the private entities, quote, "censorship." It's the government censorship. And by locating the problem in the government censorship, it made it clear that the government has to butt out.

ALLYN: Right. The government needs to butt out. In other words, states like Florida and Texas censoring is a big problem - right? - more of a problem than, say, the censorship that conservatives say the platforms are doing.

CHANG: Didn't the court rule on a case just last week involving social media and free speech as well?

ALLYN: Yeah, they did. The court last week tossed a lawsuit claiming the Biden administration was illegally pressuring social media platforms from removing content seen as disinformation. And in recent years, you know, during the pandemic, we saw a lot of disinformation spreading all around social media about COVID-19.

Missouri and Louisiana sued the Biden administration, alleging that the White House told social media sites what to take down. And the case was thrown out on technical grounds. The justices said the states didn't have the right to be in court, right? They didn't have standing, according to the justices. It did not provide any guidance on the thorny issue of when government communication with social media sites crosses into illegal pressure.

And today, Ailsa, it was similar, right? The court didn't resolve the core legal tension at the heart of the case. So for the tech industry and for the states that sued, it was kind of unsatisfying, right?

CHANG: (Laughter).

ALLYN: I mean, this is how these cases often go, right? It could take years now until we figure out whether the Florida and Texas laws pass legal muster. Also worth noting, you know, these laws were passed, as I mentioned, back in 2021, and they just have never taken effect.

CHANG: So we're still in limbo. That is NPR's Bobby Allyn. Thank you so much, Bobby.

ALLYN: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.