Judge Blocks Texas Law Aimed at Preventing Social Media Censorship

Judge Blocks Texas Law Aimed at Preventing Social Media Censorship
A Facebook logo is displayed on a smartphone in this illustration taken on Jan. 6, 2020. (Dado Ruvic/Illustration/Reuters)
Zachary Stieber

A Texas law designed to prevent social media companies from censoring users was blocked Wednesday by a federal judge, who found the law's challengers will likely prevail.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman, an Obama nominee, ordered a preliminary injunction, which stops the law from taking effect, at least for now.

The legislation in question was passed by Republicans earlier this year and signed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

It would require social media platforms to make transparent their practices regarding content management, including what types of posts would violate their rules. It would also prohibit platforms from "censor[ing] a user, a user's expression, or a user ’s ability to receive the expression of another person based on" their viewpoint or location.

“We will always defend the freedom of speech in Texas, which is why I am proud to sign House Bill 20 into law," Abbott said before signing the bill.

Two trade associations that have members that operate platforms, though, sued over the law, arguing it violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

The law "imposes impermissible content- and viewpoint-based classifications to compel a select few platforms to publish speech and speakers that violate the platforms’ policies—and to present that speech the same way the platforms present other speech that does not violate their policies," they said in their suit.

Pitman agreed, finding that "HB 20’s prohibitions on 'censorship' and constraints on how social media platforms disseminate content violate the First Amendment."

Further, he said, the ability of users to file lawsuits under the new law "chills the social media platforms' speech rights."

A similar law was partially blocked in Florida earlier this year.

Steve DelBianco, president and CEO of NetChoice, one of the plaintiffs in both cases, said in a statement that "America’s judicial system protected our constitutional right to free speech today by ensuring the politically motivated Texas law does not see the light of day and force Americans everywhere to endure racial epithets, aggressive homophobia, pornographic material, beheadings, or other gruesome content just to scroll online."

Members of Netscape include AOL, Google, Twitter, and Facebook.

A spokeswoman for Abbott told news outlets that the state was working to appeal the ruling.

"Allowing biased social media companies to cancel conservative speech is hostile to the free speech foundation America was built on. In Texas, we will always fight to defend Texans’ freedom of speech," she said.

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