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Federal judge blocks Florida law that would penalize social media companies

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) with former president Donald Trump at the White House last summer. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

A federal judge on Wednesday blocked a Florida law that would penalize social media companies for blocking a politician’s posts, a blow to conservatives’ efforts to respond to Facebook and other websites’ suspension of former president Donald Trump.

The law was due to go into effect Thursday, but in issuing a preliminary injunction, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle of the Northern District of Florida suggested that the law would be found unconstitutional.

“The plaintiffs are likely to prevail on the merits of their claim that these statutes violate the First Amendment,” Hinkle wrote. “There is nothing that could be severed and survive.”

The law laid out fines for tech companies that suspended political candidates in the run-up to an election.

Florida legislators approved the law after Facebook, Twitter and YouTube suspended Trump’s accounts for violating their policies following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a potential 2024 presidential candidate and key Trump ally, touted the law as a stand against alleged censorship of conservatives when he signed it in May.

DeSantis plans to immediately appeal Hinkle’s decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

“We are disappointed by Judge Hinkle’s ruling and disagree with his determination that the U.S. Constitution protects Big Tech’s censorship of certain individuals and content over others,” his office said in a statement.

Florida governor signs bill barring social media companies from blocking political candidates

But legal and tech experts immediately questioned its constitutionality. NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), which represent companies including Facebook, Google and Amazon, swiftly brought a lawsuit challenging it.

The Technology 202: Tech groups file lawsuit challenging Florida’s new social media law

“This decision upholding the Constitution and federal law is encouraging, and reaffirms what we have been saying: Florida’s statute is an extraordinary overreach, designed to penalize private businesses for their perceived lack of deference to the Government’s political ideology,” CCIA President Matt Schruers said in a statement. “The court’s ruling is a win for Internet users and the First Amendment.”

The judge wrote a blistering criticism of the Florida law, saying that it “compels providers to host speech that violates their standards.”

“Like prior First Amendment restrictions, this is an instance of burning the house to roast a pig,” he wrote.

He also said that remarks from the governor and other lawmakers made clear that the law was “viewpoint-based,” adding that there was “substantial factual support” showing the law was motivated by hostility toward the perceived liberal bias of large tech firms.

Hinkle also referred to the law as “riddled with imprecision and ambiguity” and said it “does not survive strict scrutiny.”

The decision on the Florida law comes as states across the country have been considering their own similar bills, while Democrats remain in control of efforts to regulate the tech industry in Washington.

The Texas Senate approved legislation similar to Florida’s that would prevent large tech companies from blocking or discriminating against a user based on their viewpoint or their location within Texas, but the Texas House did not pass the bill during the recent legislative session. North Carolina and Louisiana state lawmakers have introduced similar bills.

NetChoice took a victory lap. “America’s judiciary system is designed to protect our constitutional rights, and today’s ruling is no different, ensuring that Florida’s politically motivated law does not force Floridians to endure racial epithets, aggressive homophobia, pornographic material, beheadings, or other gruesome content just to use the Internet,” Carl Szabo, the group’s vice president and general counsel, said in a statement.