Federal appeals court upholds controversial Texas social media law

A federal appeals court dealt a blow to the social media giants on Friday when it upheld a Texas law designed to prevent platforms from removing posts when the removal can be viewed as discriminating against a “point of view.”

Driving the news: The US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that Texas law HB20 does not violate First Amendment rights of social media platforms.

  • Tech companies and groups representing them in court have argued that the law is unconstitutional and that platforms have First Amendment rights not to make speeches they deem objectionable.

Why it matters: If the law goes into effect, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media companies with more than 50 million users will be effectively prevented from enforcing content-related rules on user posts that may claim to express a political opinion.

  • The ruling opens a door for other states to pass similar legislation, unless a future appeal by the US Supreme Court would reverse it.

Between the lines: Social media companies face pressure from the right to “censor” less and from the left to remove more content to curb the spread of misinformation.

  • Conservatives have accused social media companies of content bias for years, driven by the belief that social media rules are being unfairly tilted in favor of liberal-leaning content.

context: Texas law has already been upheld and rejected by a number of courts. In May, the Supreme Court prevented it from going into effect before remanding it to the 5th Circuit.

  • A federal appeals court in Florida in May struck down a similar law in a ruling that directly contradicts the Texas ruling — meaning the matter will almost certainly have to be decided by the Supreme Court.

How it works: Texas law prohibits platforms from “blocking, banning, removing, disabling, demonstrating, de-boosting, restricting, denying equal access or visibility, or otherwise discriminating against the expression of any platform.” Individuals and the Texas Attorney General can sue major social media platforms for violations.

What you say: “Today we reject the idea that corporations have a free-ranging First Amendment right to censor what people say,” the judges wrote in their ruling.

  • Judge Andrew Stephen Oldham, a nominee for former President Trump, wrote that Texas law “does not chill speech; if anything, it cools down the censorship.”

The other side: Critics of the law say it would force platforms to host dangerous and illegal content and fill social media platforms with spam and hate speech.

  • “We absolutely disagree with the court’s decision. Forcing private companies to treat all viewpoints equally on their platforms puts foreign propaganda and extremism on the same footing as decent internet users and puts Americans at risk,” said Matt Schruers, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association.
  • “‘God Bless America’ and ‘Death to America’ are both viewpoints, and it is unwise and unconstitutional for the state of Texas to force a private corporation to treat them equally,” he said.

What’s next: The law has not yet come into force. First, the 5th federal court must issue orders to a lower court, and a Supreme Court appeal from tech companies is likely.

go deeper: Court paves way for spate of “censorship” lawsuits in Texas