Supreme Court hears major social media cases on content moderation and free speech

The Supreme Court on Monday heard arguments on the constitutionality of laws in Texas and Florida that would regulate how social media companies like Facebook, TikTok and X control the content posted on their sites.

The high court is reviewing laws enacted in 2021 by Republican-dominated legislatures in Florida and Texas after former President Donald Trump was banned from sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.  

Supporters of the laws, including Republican-elected officials in several states that have similar measures, have sought to portray large social media companies as generally more liberal in outlook and say they censor users based on their viewpoints, particularly from the political right. 

Meanwhile, the companies say these laws violate their First Amendment right to control what speech appears on their platform. The tech sector has warned that such laws would prevent platforms from removing extremism and hate speech.

"Online services have a well-established First Amendment right to host, curate and share content as they see fit," Chris Marchese, the litigation director for the industry group NetChoice, said in a statement last fall. "The internet is a vital platform for free expression, and it must remain free from government censorship. We are confident the Court will agree."

FILE - In this photo illustration, a person looks at an iPhone screen showing various social media apps including TikTok, Facebook and X. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

FILE - In this photo illustration, a person looks at an iPhone screen showing various social media apps including TikTok, Facebook and X. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

What do the Texas and Florida laws say?

The Texas law, called H.B. 20, prohibits social media platforms with at least 50 million active users from blocking, removing, or "demonetizing" content based on the users’ views, according to SCOTUSBlog, which offers analysis on Supreme Court cases. 

The Texas law makes some exceptions, allowing social media platforms to censor content if it "unlawfully harasses individuals or unlawfully incites violence," or otherwise is "specifically authorized to censor by federal law."

The Florida law, called S.B. 7072 or the Stop Social Media Censorship Act, bars social media companies from banning political candidates. It also requires social media companies to publish standards about issues such as blocking users and apply the standards consistently.

Monday’s arguments before the Supreme Court followed conflicting rulings by two appeals courts, one of which upheld the Texas law, while the other struck down Florida’s statute. 

By a 5-4 vote, the justices kept the Texas law on hold while litigation over it continued in lower courts.

What happened in court Monday?

In nearly four hours of arguments, several justices questioned aspects of the laws adopted by Republican-dominated legislatures and signed by Republican governors in Florida and Texas in 2021. But they seemed wary of a broad ruling, with Justice Amy Coney Barrett warning of "land mines" she and her colleagues need to avoid in resolving the two cases, Moody v. NetChoice and NetChoice v. Paxton.

While the details vary, both laws aimed to address conservative complaints that the social media companies were liberal-leaning and censored users based on their viewpoints, especially on the political right.

Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas appeared most ready to embrace arguments made by lawyers for the states. Alito complained about the term "content moderation" that the sites employ to keep material off their platforms.

"Is it anything more than a euphemism for censorship?" he asked.

But Justice Brett Kavanaugh, seemingly more favorable to the companies, took issue with applying the term censorship to actions taken by private companies, rather than the government.

"When I think of Orwellian, I think of the state, not private individuals," Kavanaugh said.

A decision could come down by summer. 

 – Mark Sherman, Associated Press

This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.