Federal judge blocks Florida law targeting social media platforms

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The preliminary injunction is a victory for Silicon Valley and a setback for conservatives in the Florida government who had argued for the measure as a means of restraining Big Tech’s so-called liberal agenda. But the move could also provide more incentive for Republicans in Congress to push through new content moderation legislation at the federal level.

The Florida law, signed in May by Governor Ron DeSantis, is said to have come into force on Thursday. This would have banned online platforms from suspending politicians and allowed politicians to sue tech companies for being taken off social media. It would also have prevented companies accused of antitrust violations from doing business with the state government.

The hot button bill has been one of the toughest steps a Republican governor has taken to respond to allegations of censorship by online platforms. In signing the legislation, DeSantis and his allies said the measures were necessary to preserve the Conservatives’ free speech against “Big Tech oligarchs.”

But the legislation is unconstitutional because it infringes on the First Amendment speech rights of tech companies, said Judge Robert Hinkle of the U.S. District Court for the North District of Florida.

The government cannot force private companies to make certain editorial judgments, he said, and if the law were to go ahead, it would be an example of the kind of government-forced speech banned by a series of previous cases. Hinkle also questioned the scope of the law.

“These laws are not closely matched,” Hinkle wrote. “Like the previous restrictions in the First Amendment, this is an example of burning the house to roast a pig.”

Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’ press secretary, said in a statement that the governor’s office was “disappointed” with the decision and that they “planned to immediately appeal” the decision.

While the ongoing litigation may still result in the law being upheld, Hinkle said he was issuing the preliminary injunction in part because the plaintiffs – two tech industry trade groups that sued in May – were likely to succeed on the merits of their legal challenge.

Hinkle added that the law also appears to conflict with Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934, a federal law that grants websites immunity for much of the content posted by their users.

Section 230 has been criticized for giving tech companies an easy escape from content moderation lawsuits. Nonetheless, Hinkle wrote, Section 230 clearly prevails over laws in states like Florida, which attempt to create new areas of responsibility for tech companies over online content.

A provision in Florida law that exempted theme park operators also raised an “obvious constitutional problem,” Hinkle said. The legislation sets out exclusions that critics say give companies like Comcast and Disney, which operate theme parks as well as websites otherwise covered by the law, a free pass.

Technology the trade groups which lodged the complaint objected to these provisions as discriminatory. Hinkle agreed, saying state lawmakers were responsible for regulating a wide range of businesses, but were “apparently unwilling to subject privileged Florida companies to the heavy regulatory burdens of laws.”


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