A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that Texas can enforce its new law prohibiting social media companies from banning users based on their political beliefs.
A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a one-sentence order granting Texas a stay of a December injunction from a federal judge that had suspended the law’s implementation.
The judges, however, did not rule on the law’s constitutionality. Instead, their order permits the law to remain in effect while case proceedings continue in district court.
The ruling was a victory for Republican state Attorney General Ken Paxton, who celebrated the news in a Thursday tweet describing the stay order as “another BIG WIN against BIG TECH.”
“Texas’s HB 20 is back in effect. The 5th Circuit made the right call here, and I look forward to continuing to defend the constitutionality of HB 20,” Paxton said.
My office just secured another BIG WIN against BIG TECH.#Texas‘s HB20 is back in effect. The 5th Circuit made the right call here, and I look forward to continuing to defend the constitutionality of #HB20. https://t.co/197atNgQ2Z
— Texas Attorney General (@TXAG) May 11, 2022
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 20 into law in September. The provisions of the bill were set to take effect in December before the injunction.
Among other things, the legislation requires social media companies to be more transparent about how they censor user-generated content. It also forces them to establish clear pathways for users to appeal censorship decisions.
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“There is a dangerous movement by some social media companies to silence conservative ideas and values,” Abbott said when signing HB 20, the Austin American-Statesman reported on Sept. 22. “It is now law that conservative viewpoints in Texas cannot be banned on social media.”
Two major technology industry groups — Net Choice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association — soon filed a lawsuit against Paxton in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in Austin, claiming the law violated social media companies’ First Amendment rights to exercise editorial control over the content on their platforms.
“At a minimum, HB 20 would unconstitutionally require platforms like YouTube and Facebook to disseminate, for example, pro-Nazi speech, terrorist propaganda, foreign government disinformation and medical misinformation,” the plaintiffs claimed in the lawsuit.
“In fact, legislators rejected amendments that would explicitly allow platforms to exclude vaccine misinformation, terrorist content and Holocaust denial,” they said.
U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman, who was nominated to the bench by then-President Barack Obama in 2014, subsequently blocked the enforcement of the law in a December court order.
“HB 20 prohibits virtually all content moderation, the very tool that social media platforms employ to make their platforms safe, useful, and enjoyable for users,” Pitman wrote in the order blocking the law’s implementation.
“Using YouTube as an example, hate speech is necessarily ‘viewpoint’ based, as abhorrent as those viewpoints may be. And removing such hate speech and assessing penalties against users for submitting that content is ‘censorship’ as defined by HB 20,” the judge wrote.
Following the issuance of the December order, Paxton vowed to appeal.
“Allowing biased social media companies to cancel conservative speech is hostile to the free speech foundation America was built on. In Texas, we will always fight to defend Texans’ freedom of speech,” Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze said, according to the American-Statesman.
Chris Marchese, a counsel of Net Choice, one of the plaintiffs challenging the law, described the Wednesday order permitting the law to come into effect as “unfortunate.”
As promised, our full statement. HB 20 is an assault on the First Amendment, and it’s constitutionally rotten from top to bottom. So of course we’re going to appeal today’s unprecedented, unexplained, and unfortunate order by a split 2-1 panel. https://t.co/hChUkISHtO pic.twitter.com/UwdIVIHIn5
— Chris Marchese (@ChrisMarchese9) May 11, 2022
“HB 20 is an assault on the First Amendment, and it’s constitutionally rotten from top to bottom,” Marchese said on Twitter. “So of course we’re going to appeal today’s unprecedented, unexplained, and unfortunate order by a split 2-1 panel.”