Judge strikes down Florida social media law, dealing blow to GOP and DeSantis

A judge has struck down a portion of a GOP-backed Florida law that would punish social media companies for restricting political speech, ruling that it violates the First Amendment.

According to The Associated Press, the Monday ruling from a three-judge panel on the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals handed a major victory to social media companies which had protested the legislation, championed by Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

In the ruling, the court said the GOP-controlled state legislature had overreached by restricting what tech companies could censor on their platforms.

“Put simply, with minor exceptions, the government can’t tell a private person or entity what to say or how to say it,” wrote Circuit Judge Kevin Newsom, a Trump appointee, in the opinion.

“We hold that it is substantially likely that social media companies — even the biggest ones — are private actors whose rights the First Amendment protects.”

“Social media platforms exercise editorial judgment that is inherently expressive. When platforms choose to remove users or posts, deprioritize content in viewers’ feeds or search results, or sanction breaches of their community standards, they engage in First-Amendment-protected activity,” Newsom added.

The decision upholds a ruling by a Florida federal district judge, which also found the law violated the First Amendment.

The bill, signed by DeSantis in 2021, made it illegal for internet companies to suspend or deplatform political candidates right before elections and lowered the bar for state officials and individual actors to sue tech companies for unfair restrictions of speech.

If an individual felt they had been wronged by a major tech platform, they could seek legal relief totaling up to $100,000.

While DeSantis’ support for the bill was announced just after former President Donald Trump was suspended from multiple platforms in the wake of the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, it wouldn’t have affected the decision to ban him.

“Some of these massive, massive companies in Silicon Valley are exerting a power over our population that really has no precedent in American history,” DeSantis said at the signing ceremony.

“One of their major missions seems to be suppressing ideas.”

“Today, Floridians are being guaranteed protection against the Silicon Valley power grab on speech, thought, and content,” the governor said in a tweet. “We the people are standing up to tech totalitarianism with the signing of Florida’s Big Tech Bill.”

However, legal experts cast doubt on whether the law could pass muster in the courts.

Santa Clara University Law School professor Eric Goldman told The Washington Post last year that some of the law’s provisions were “obviously unconstitutional.”

“I see this bill as purely performative, it was never designed to be law but simply to send a message to voters,” Goldman said.

It’s unclear whether Florida intends to appeal and no immediate response was forthcoming from DeSantis’ team.

While Florida was the first state to enact a bill that restricted how much political content social media companies could censor, other states have proposed or enacted them. In Texas, a similar bill was allowed to take effect by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.