Federal judge puts Florida 'deplatforming' law on hold, citing First Amendment

A federal judge Wednesday put on hold a first-of-its-kind law in Florida that authorized the state to penalize social media companies when they ban political candidates, a win for social media companies as they try to keep control of their platforms.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the law, which was scheduled to go into effect Thursday.

Hinkle said the law's ban on "deplatforming" likely violated the free speech rights of the tech companies, which under the First Amendment are generally free to decide what to publish without government interference.

"The legislation compels providers to host speech that violates their standards — speech they otherwise would not host — and forbids providers from speaking as they otherwise would," he wrote.

Referring to the sweeping scope of the law, he added: "Like prior First Amendment restrictions, this is an instance of burning the house to roast a pig."

The law says that a platform may not "permanently delete or ban" a candidate for office. Suspensions of up to 14 days are allowed under the law, and a service could still remove individual posts that violate its terms of service.

The state's elections commission could fine a social media company $250,000 a day for statewide candidates and $25,000 a day for other candidates, if a company were found to have violated the law. Individuals could also sue.

Florida's Republican-led legislature passed the law this year partly as a response to the social media bans against former President Donald Trump after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Tech companies including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube said Trump broke their rules, including by promoting violence.

But the law is also the latest episode in a years-long fight between social media platforms and Republican politicians. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said in May when he signed the law that it was "protection against the Silicon Valley elites" for "real Floridians."

Hinkle said that statements from DeSantis and others showed the law to be "viewpoint-based" discrimination.

"The legislation now at issue was an effort to rein in social-media providers deemed too large and too liberal," he wrote. But, he added, "Balancing the exchange of ideas among private speakers is not a legitimate governmental interest. And even aside from the actual motivation for this legislation, it is plainly content-based and subject to strict scrutiny."

The judge also questioned why the law discriminates against social media providers that are not under common ownership with a theme park. In a nod to Disney, companies were excluded from the law if they operate "a theme park or entertainment complex."

Hinkle's ruling came in a lawsuit filed by two tech industry trade groups, NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association. Their members include Twitter, Facebook and YouTube's parent company, Alphabet, which also owns Google.

"We cannot stand idly by as Florida's lawmakers push unconstitutional bills into law that bring us closer to state-run media and a state-run internet," NetChoice Vice President Carl Szabo said when they filed the lawsuit in May.

Texas state lawmakers considered a similar bill during their session this year but did not pass it.

And in April, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative, wrote that lawmakers may have a firm basis for regulating the content moderation decisions of tech companies.