US appeals court overturns big tech’s right to regulate online speech

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Sept. 16 (Reuters) – A US appeals court on Friday upheld a law in Texas that prohibits major social media companies from banning or censoring users based on “opinion,” a setback for tech industry groups who say the measure will platforms would turn into bastions of dangerous content.

The largely 2-1 ruling of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans, provides an opportunity for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the bill, which conservatives and right-wing commentators have said is necessary to prevent “Big Tech” of suppressing their views.

“Today, we reject the idea that corporations have a liberal First Amendment right to censor what people say,” Judge Andrew Oldham, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, wrote in the ruling.

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Texas law was passed by the Republican-led state legislature and signed by the Republican governor.

The tech groups that challenged the law and were on the losing end of Friday’s ruling include NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association, which owns Meta Platforms’ (META.O) Facebook, Twitter (TWTR.N) and Alphabet Inc’s. (GOOGL.O) YouTube as members.

They have sought to maintain the rights to regulate user content when they believe it could lead to violence, citing concerns that unregulated platforms will allow extremists such as Nazi supporters, terrorists and hostile foreign governments.

The association said it disagrees with forcing private companies to treat all views equally. “‘God Bless America’ and ‘Death to America’ are both points of view, and it is unwise and unconstitutional for the state of Texas to force a private company to treat them the same,” a statement said.

Some conservatives have labeled the practices of the social media companies as offensive, pointing to Twitter’s permanent suspension of Trump from the platform shortly after the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol by a mob of his supporters. Twitter cited “the risk of further incitement to violence” as the reason.

Texas law prohibits social media companies with at least 50 million monthly active users from “censoring” users on a “point of view,” and allows users or the Texas Attorney General to enforce the law.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton praised the ruling on Twitter as “a huge victory for the Constitution and free speech.”

Because the 5th Circuit ruling conflicts with part of an 11th Circuit ruling, the aggrieved parties have a stronger argument to petition the Supreme Court to hear the case.

In May, the 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta, found that most of a similar law in Florida violates the corporations’ freedom of speech and cannot be enforced. read more

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Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Leslie Adler

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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