Appeals Court Upholds Texas Social Media 'Censorship' Law

The law prohibits social media companies from banning users or blocking posts based on political viewpoints.

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A federal appeals court on Friday reversed a lower court's order blocking a Texas law that prohibits large social media companies like Twitter and Facebook from banning users or blocking posts based on political viewpoints.

"Today we reject the idea that corporations have a freewheeling First Amendment right to censor what people say," Judge Andrew S. Oldham of the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit wrote in the split decision. The law had previously been blocked from taking effect in May by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision.

The First Amendment to the US Constitution specifically addresses government interference with free speech, saying that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech or of the press.

The Texas law, which was sponsored by Republicans and signed in September by GOP Gov. Greg Abbott, allows residents of the state to sue companies with at least 50 million monthly users in the US for reinstatement of accounts. Abbott's office hailed the law, known as HB20, as protecting Texans "from wrongful censorship on social media platforms.

Conservative critics have accused social media companies of censoring content for ideological reasons, a claim the social media firms have repeatedly denied. Critics of the law counter that it would force social media companies to leave offensive content, hate speech and misinformation on their platforms.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Twitter hailed the ruling as a "massive victory."

NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association -- lobbying groups that count Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet's YouTube as members -- challenged the law, arguing that the First Amendment protects social media platforms' ability to curate content as it does for newspapers. Oldman rejected that argument.

"The Platforms are not newspapers. Their censorship is not speech. They're not entitled to pre-enforcement facial relief," Oldham wrote in his opinion. "And HB 20 is constitutional because it neither compels nor obstructs the Platforms' own speech in any way." 

NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association said they're disappointed in the decision and would appeal.

"We remain convinced that when the US Supreme Court hears one of our cases, it will uphold the First Amendment rights of websites, platforms, and apps," NetChoice Vice President and General Counsel Carl Szabo said in a statement.

Twitter declined to comment on the ruling. Facebook and YouTube didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.