June 21, 2021

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Florida faces lawsuit over Trump-inspired law to block Facebook, YouTube and Twitter from political ‘censorship’

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Calling it a “frontal assault on the First Amendment,” a federal lawsuit is seeking to strike down a Florida law that penalizes social media companies for barring the speech of political candidates, USA TODAY has learned.

Two technology trade groups, NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association, sued the state Thursday in Tallahassee federal court on grounds that the law it crafted to thwart alleged censorship of conservative viewpoints and voices violates the Constitution, according to a copy of the lawsuit obtained by USA TODAY. 

The tech industry’s lawsuit alleges the Florida law infringes on the First Amendment rights of online businesses and is preempted by a federal law that shields internet companies from being sued for how they moderate content.

Signed Monday by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, the law is the first of its kind to crack down on Facebook, Twitter and Google-owned YouTube for unfairly restricting or removing conservative content from their platforms, a charge the companies deny.

“If Big Tech censors enforce rules inconsistently, to discriminate in favor of the dominant Silicon Valley ideology, they will now be held accountable,” DeSantis, a possible 2024 presidential contender and ally of former President Donald Trump, said in a statement Monday.

But the lawsuit alleges that Florida is the one attempting to censor free speech and expression by compelling social media companies to host speech and speakers they disagree with.

“Rather than preventing what it calls ‘censorship,’ the Act does the exact opposite: it empowers government officials in Florida to police the protected editorial judgment of online businesses that the State disfavors and whose perceived political viewpoints it wishes to punish,” the lawsuit says. “The Act is a frontal assault on the First Amendment and an extraordinary intervention by the government in the free marketplace of ideas that would be unthinkable for traditional media, book sellers, lending libraries, or newsstands.”

DeSantis could not be immediately reached for comment.

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Under the law, which takes effect July 1, the state can fine large social media companies $250,000 a day if they remove an account of a statewide political candidate and $25,000 a day if they remove the account of someone seeking local office. It requires social media companies to notify users within seven days that they could be censored, giving them time to correct posts.

The law targets internet businesses with more than 100 million monthly users but made an exception for Disney and its platforms by exempting theme park owners. It also allows Florida residents to sue online businesses for up to $100,000 if they feel they’ve been treated unfairly.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives his opening remarks flanked by local state delegation members prior to signing legislation that seeks to punish social media platforms that remove conservative ideas.

The lawsuit alleges Florida’s restrictions on social media companies are a “blatant attack” on the content moderation choices they make daily to protect the public and advertisers from pornography, terrorist incitement, false propaganda spread by foreign actors, calls for genocide or race-based violence, COVID-19 vaccines disinformation, fraudulent schemes and other harmful, offensive or illegal material. 

Law professor: Florida law ‘obviously unconstitutional’

Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University, says the Florida law was bound to draw legal challenges as some of the new law’s provisions are “obviously unconstitutional.”

“The Supreme Court has made it clear that publishers have the freedom to pick and choose what content they want to publish, and the bill blatantly seeks to strip publishers of that freedom,” he said. “Florida residents should expect better from their legislators, and now they see their tax dollars spent defending an indefensible bill that never should have passed.”

Similar bills are under consideration in other states. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has expressed support for legislation approved by the Texas Senate. North Carolina and Louisiana state lawmakers have also introduced bills.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox vetoed similar legislation in March, citing “technical issues.”

Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature said the legislation was needed to curb social media companies’ outsize influence over the national conversation and who gets to participate in it.

“Some of these massive, massive companies in Silicon Valley are exerting a power over our population that really has no precedent in American history,” DeSantis said during a bill-signing ceremony at Florida International University in Miami where he spoke from a lectern bearing a “Stop Big Tech Censorship” sign. “One of their major missions seems to be suppressing ideas.”

Gov. DeSantis takes on ‘Big Tech censorship’ after Trump bans

The political right has complained for years that Big Tech stifles conservative voices and viewpoints.

Trump made these “social media abuses” a major plank of his administration and reelection campaign.

DeSantis voiced his support for the Florida legislation shortly after Trump and other conservative figures were booted from social media platforms in response to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hold up the signed legislation that seeks to punish social media platforms that remove conservative ideas.

“Day in and day out, our freedom of speech as conservatives is under attack by the ‘big tech’ oligarchs in Silicon Valley. But in Florida, we said this egregious example of biased silencing will not be tolerated,” Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, who carried the bill in the House for DeSantis, said in a statement. 

Earlier this month, the Facebook Oversight Board upheld Trump’s suspension. But the company-funded panel of outside experts ruled that it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose an indefinite suspension and instructed the company to review the matter within six months, possibly opening the door to Trump’s return.

His account on YouTube is also still up, but he cannot upload videos. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said in March that the Trump ban will be lifted “when we determine the risk of violence has decreased.” 

Snapchat and Twitter permanently banned Trump.

Majorities in both parties think political censorship is likely occurring on social media, but that belief is most prevalent on the political right.

Nine in 10 Republicans and independents who lean toward the Republican Party say it’s at least somewhat likely that social media platforms censor political viewpoints they find objectionable, up slightly from 85% in 2018, according to a report last year from the Pew Research Center.

Researchers say it’s difficult to know whether platforms are politically biased since social media companies disclose so little about how they decide what content is allowed. But that has not stopped the GOP from taking on Big Tech.

Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, confronted Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in a Senate hearing last year over Facebook and Twitter throttling the spread of a New York Post article which made uncorroborated claims about Hunter Biden’s business dealings.

“Who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear?” Cruz said.

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