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SCTOUS Casts Doubt on State Media Regs 02/27 06:13


   WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court cast doubt Monday on state laws that 
could affect how Facebook, TikTok, X, YouTube and other social media platforms 
regulate content posted by their users. The cases are among several this term 
in which the justices could set standards for free speech in the digital age.

   In nearly four hours of arguments, several justices questioned aspects of 
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.

   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.

   Differences on the court emerged over how to think about the platforms -- as 
akin to newspapers that have broad free-speech protections, or telephone 
companies, known as common carriers, that are susceptible to broader regulation.

   Chief Justice John Roberts suggested he was in the former camp, saying early 
in the session, "And I wonder, since we're talking about the First Amendment, 
whether our first concern should be with the state regulating what we have 
called the modern public square?"

   Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas appeared most ready to embrace 
arguments made by lawyers for the states. Thomas raised the idea that the 
companies are seeking constitutional protection for "censoring other speech."

   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, later 
musing that term struck him as Orwellian.

   But Justice Brett Kavanaugh, seemingly more favorable to the companies, took 
issue with calling the actions of private companies censorship, a term he said 
should be reserved for restrictions imposed by the government.

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

   The precise contours of rulings in the two cases were not clear after 
arguments, although it seemed likely the court would not let the laws take 
effect. The justices posed questions about how the laws might affect businesses 
that are not their primary targets, including e-commerce sites like Uber and 
Etsy and email and messaging services.

   The cases are among several the justices have grappled with over the past 
year involving social media platforms. Next month, the court will hear an 
appeal from Louisiana, Missouri and other parties accusing administration 
officials of pressuring social media companies to silence conservative points 
of view. Two more cases awaiting decision concern whether public officials can 
block critics from commenting on their social media accounts, an issue that 
previously came up in a case involving then-President Donald Trump. The court 
dismissed the Trump case when his presidential term ended in January 2021.

   The Florida and Texas laws were passed in the months following decisions by 
Facebook and Twitter, now X, to cut Trump off over his posts related to the 
Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters.

   Trade associations representing the companies sued in federal court, 
claiming that the laws violated the platforms' speech rights. One federal 
appeal struck down Florida's statute, while another upheld the Texas law. But 
both are on hold pending the outcome at the Supreme Court.

   In a statement when he signed the bill into law, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis 
said the measure would be "protection against the Silicon Valley elites."

   When Gov. Greg Abbott signed the Texas law, he said it was needed to protect 
free speech in what he termed the new public square. Social media platforms 
"are a place for healthy public debate where information should be able to flow 
freely -- but there is a dangerous movement by social media companies to 
silence conservative viewpoints and ideas. That is wrong, and we will not allow 
it in Texas," Abbott said.

   But much has changed since then. Elon Musk purchased Twitter and, in 
addition to changing its name, eliminated teams focused on content moderation, 
welcomed back many users previously banned for hate speech and used the site to 
spread conspiracy theories.

   The Biden administration is siding with the challengers. Lawyers for Trump 
have filed a brief in the Florida case urging the court to uphold the state law.

   Still, Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, the administration's top 
Supreme Court lawyer, cautioned the court to seek a narrow ruling that blocked 
the laws. Prelogar said governments maintain the ability to impose regulations 
to ensure competition, preserve data privacy and protect consumer interests.

   Several academics and privacy advocacy groups told the court that they view 
the laws at issue in these cases as unconstitutional, but want the justices to 
preserve the government's ability to regulate social media companies to some 

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