Social media companies can continue to censor posts.
That’s the upshot of this week’s Supreme Court ruling, blocking a controversial Texas law that bars large social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter from removing posts based on the viewpoints expressed by individuals and organizations. The justices were largely divided with a 5-4 decision in an ideologically scrambled vote, with three of the courts conservatives and two liberals putting the law on hold. The majority did not explain the reasoning behind its brief order but Justice Samuel Alito, in his dissent, notes the importance of social media platforms as a means for public discourse.
“This application concerns issues of great importance that will plainly merit this court’s review,” wrote Justice Alito. “Social media platforms have transformed the way people communicate with each other and obtain news. At issue is a groundbreaking Texas law that addresses the power of dominant social media corporations to shape public discussion of the important issues of the day.”
The Texas law would prohibit social media platforms with at least 50 million active users from blocking, removing, or “demonetizing” content based on the users’ views. It would essentially disallow any kind of editorial discretion on the platforms. When Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed the law last September, he noted that these companies are attempting to “silence conservative viewpoints and ideas.” A similar law in Florida was also blocked by the federal appeals court on May 24, 2022.
Tech companies challenged the law, saying it violates their First Amendment right to control what speech appears on their platforms. They also said the law would prevent them from removing hate speech, political disinformation, violent videos, and other harmful content, regardless of political views. While the law is mostly geared towards major platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, it may also effect other companies with large, or growing online communities.
The case is an example of a much larger debate on Capitol Hill, as to how the country should balance free expression with safety online, and some members of Congress have suggested making online platforms liable when they promote discriminatory ads or misinformation. The order is still pending before a federal appeals court and it may return to the Supreme Court at some point in the future.