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Supreme Court questions whether Texas and Florida can regulate social media to 'protect' speech

David G. Savage, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court sounded divided Monday during arguments on whether Florida and Texas can regulate popular social media sites and impose heavy fines on those that they find discriminate against conservatives or "deplatform" prominent Republicans, as happened to former President Donald Trump after he continued to spread false claims about the 2020 election.

Most of the justices appeared to agree that the two states' laws would violate the free-speech rights of Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and others if the social media companies were punished for removing content they deemed as objectionable or false.

In their comments, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett said the 1st Amendment prohibits the government from restricting the editorial decisions of a private company, including websites.

When a lawyer defending Florida's law said the state was simply trying to protect free speech in politics, Kavanaugh interrupted him, noting that the 1st Amendment says the government does not have the authority to decide which speech is appropriate.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. disagreed, saying the two states were defending free speech, not threatening it.

Thomas said the social media sites act as "common carriers" for speech, similar to telephone companies, and he disputed they were engaged in "expressive" activity protected by the 1st Amendment.

 

"What's the expressive conduct when Twitter deplatforms someone?" he asked, referring to the removal of a user on a platform for violating the site's rules.

Alito said social media sites were engaging in "censorship," which he described as "Orwellian."

Minutes later, Kavanaugh spoke up to disagree. He said author George Orwell wrote about an all-powerful state that controlled speech, not private companies.

"What I think of Orwellian, I think of the state," he said.

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