A federal appeals court on Friday reversed a lower court’s order blocking a Texas law that stops large social media platforms from removing political posts, a blow for tech companies that say their content moderation decisions are protected by the Constitution.
“Today we reject the idea that corporations have a freewheeling First Amendment right to censor what people say,” Judge Andrew S. Oldham of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which is known to be conservative, said in the court’s ruling. One member of the three-judge panel dissented from portions of the ruling.
The law makes it possible for individuals or the Texas attorney general’s office to sue social media platforms with more than 50 million monthly users in the United States for taking down political viewpoints. The legislation is the product of conservative anger over posts that were taken down largely because they had violated the social media platforms’ rules.
It comes as platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter face immense political pressure over their decisions to take down content they deem misinformation, or view as hateful or violent. Republicans have generally called for the platforms to leave up more posts, while Democrats have urged them to be more aggressive in removing some content.
Lawmakers in Washington have pushed for changes to a law, known as Section 230, that shields platforms from liability for the content users post, to nudge the companies to either be more forceful or more lenient. But those proposals have gained little traction.
Two tech industry groups, NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association, sued to block the law after it was approved last year, saying the social media companies have a First Amendment right to remove posts they consider inappropriate. A different federal court has blocked a similar law in Florida.
The ruling on Friday is the latest turn in the legal wrangling over the law. Last year, a district court blocked the law. The appeals court disagreed with that decision, clearing the way for the law to take effect. But the Supreme Court intervened at the behest of the technology industry groups — blocking the law until the court of appeals issued its fuller ruling. The decision on Friday does not allow the law to take effect; that requires the appeals court to issue instructions to the lower court.
The legal battle is likely not over. Matt Schruers, the president of Computer & Communications Industry Association, said the group was “evaluating options.” NetChoice said it remained “convinced that when the U.S. Supreme Court hears one of our cases, it will uphold the First Amendment rights of websites, platforms and apps.”