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Florida eyes a Texas ruling in a fight over social media giants and free speech

The Florida fight centers on decisions by social media giants to remove politicians and other users from their platforms. Facebook and Twitter blocked former President Donald Trump after his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
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The Florida fight centers on decisions by social media giants to remove politicians and other users from their platforms. Facebook and Twitter blocked former President Donald Trump after his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

As a battle continues about the constitutionality of a Florida law that seeks to crack down on social-media giants such as Facebook and Twitter, a federal appeals court has allowed a similar Texas law to take effect.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration quickly cited the move by a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the Texas case to urge the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to toss out a preliminary injunction that has blocked the Florida law.

“This court (the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals) should likewise allow state officials to enforce Florida’s law by overturning the preliminary injunction,” an attorney for the DeSantis administration wrote in a filing Thursday at the Atlanta-based appeals court.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on April 28 heard arguments in the Florida case, after U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle last year issued the preliminary injunction. Hinkle sided with online-industry groups that argued the 2021 law violated the First Amendment.

Meanwhile, a U.S. district judge issued a preliminary injunction last year against a similar Texas law. But a divided panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week issued a stay of that preliminary injunction — effectively allowing the Texas law to take effect while the overall case continues to play out.

The industry groups NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association quickly asked Friday that the U.S. Supreme Court vacate the stay. The groups’ request would reinstate the preliminary injunction against the Texas law. Texas faces a Wednesday deadline for filing a response.

In the filing at the Supreme Court, attorneys for the industry groups pointed to potential effects on the Florida case, which remains pending.

“By issuing a stay and allowing the Texas attorney general to enforce HB20 (the Texas law) while appeals are still pending, the Fifth Circuit short-circuited the normal review process, authorizing Texas to inflict a massive change to leading global websites and undoubtedly also interfering with the Eleventh Circuit’s consideration of applicants’ (the industry groups’) challenge to the similar Florida law,” the filing at the Supreme Court said.

The Florida fight centers on a law that targeted companies such as Facebook and Twitter over decisions to remove politicians and other users from the social-media platforms.

DeSantis made a priority of the issue after Twitter and Facebook blocked former President Donald Trump from their platforms after Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

The law, in part, sought to prevent the platforms from banning political candidates from their sites and to require companies to publish --- and apply consistently --- standards about issues such as banning users or blocking their content. Companies could face penalties for violating restrictions in the law. For example, companies that remove political candidates from platforms could face fines of $250,000 a day for statewide candidates and $25,000 a day for other candidates.

NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association challenged the law, and Hinkle in June issued a preliminary injunction, calling the law “riddled with imprecision and ambiguity.”

Republicans across the country have made a rallying cry of taking on large social-media companies, accusing them of censorship. Like in Florida, the Texas law was blocked by a preliminary injunction before it could be enforced.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued the stay of the Texas preliminary injunction Wednesday but did not give a full explanation of its decision. In their filing Friday at the Supreme Court, the industry groups pointed to far-reaching effects if the Texas law is allowed to remain in effect.

“Last year, both Texas and Florida embarked on an unprecedented effort to override the editorial discretion of social media platforms and to compel them to disseminate a plethora of speech the platforms deem objectionable and antithetical to the speech they want to present to users (and advertisers),” attorneys for the industry groups wrote.

“Both laws are an undisguised effort to level the speech playing field and control ‘Big Tech.’ To that end, both laws override editorial discretion and compel speech — imposing their burdens only on selected speakers and carving out favored content.”