Lawsuit says Florida’s social media anti-censorship law violates free-speech rights

In a legal battle where both sides claim to be championing freedom of speech, two internet business trade groups have sued Florida to halt a new law that punishes social media platforms for censorship.

NetChoice and Computer & Communications Industry Association filed a lawsuit in federal court last month contending that the law violates the First Amendment’s free-speech protections because Florida can’t compel a company to endorse speech that violates its terms or is threatening.

“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 70-page lawsuit said. “The Act is so rife with fundamental infirmities that it appears to have been enacted without any regard for the Constitution.”

The law, which takes effect July 1, allows Floridians to sue large tech social media platforms if they’re censored.

The law ensures companies have to follow their own content moderation practices and give people notice of any change in policies, according to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

It also prohibits big tech companies from de-platforming Florida political candidates. The Florida Election Commission can fine a company $250,000 per day if it de-platforms a state candidate.

“This session, we took action to ensure that ‘We the People’ — real Floridians across the Sunshine State — are guaranteed protection against the Silicon Valley elites,” Mr. DeSantis said when he signed the bill on May 24.

“Many in our state have experienced censorship and other tyrannical behavior firsthand in Cuba and Venezuela. If Big Tech censors enforce rules inconsistently, to discriminate in favor of the dominant Silicon Valley ideology, they will now be held accountable,” he said.

The Florida attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit.

Clay Calvert, a law professor at the University of Florida, said the law is “politically symbolic.”

“This legislation from a big picture perspective really represents a battle between red-state Florida and a deep-blue California and Silicon Valley and the ability of big tech to de-platform conservative politicians,” he said. “Much of this was really triggered by the de-platforming of Donald Trump.”

Whether politically symbolic or not, the law may run into trouble in court, according to Caroline Mala Corbin, a law professor at the University of Miami.

She said federal law governs social media companies under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and the new Florida law runs afoul of free speech.

“A basic premise of the free speech clause is that private people, not the [government], get to decide what they do or do not say. In other words, the free speech clause protects both your right to speak and your right to not speak,” she said. “Consequently, the government cannot compel individuals or companies to speak against their will, which is exactly what this law does.”

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