A federal judge issued an order pumping the brakes on a Florida law cracking down on Big Tech that was slated to kick in Thursday.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle granted a temporary injunction late Wednesday, siding with Silicon Valley interests over the law (SB 7072), promoted by legislative Republicans and Gov. Ron DeSantis. The injunction comes following a hearing Monday, one of the first battles in a lawsuit filed by the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) and NetChoice.
The law, which would have kicked in at midnight, would require social media companies to post their terms of service with standards for handling issues like censoring, deplatforming and blocking users, and apply the standards consistently.
DeSantis signed and promoted the measure as protections for users’ speech, arguing social media disproportionately punishes conservatives. CCIA and NetChoice, represented by DLA Piper and others, filed a lawsuit last month arguing the law instead violates the tech corporations’ rights to free speech.
The preliminary injunction stops the law from taking effect while the state and tech groups litigate the bill.
NetChoice Vice President and General Counsel Carl Szabo celebrated the injunction in a statement. NetChoice and CCIA are two Washington-based internet interest lobbying associations that partner with Twitter, Google and others.
“When the State’s own lawyers can’t explain how the law works or even identify to whom it applies, there’s just no way that Florida’s enforcement of that law would keep users, creators, and advertisers safe from the tidal wave of offensive content and hate speech that would surely ensue,” Szabo said.
CCIA President Matt Schruers called the order a win for internet users and the First Amendment.
“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,” Schruers said.
Julio Fuentes, President of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, also came out in support of the order.
“The first amendment was written to protect private citizens and companies from government controlled and compelled speech,” Fuentes said. “It’s a beacon of our democracy and should never be weaponized in the name of politicking. Florida’s small businesses do not need our leaders to over-regulate them and instead, need their support as they try to recover from a global pandemic.”
Hinkle, a senior judge in the Northern District of Florida, peppered lawyers with questions and swiped at the law during Monday’s two and a half-hour hearing.
“I won’t put you on the spot and ask you if you’ve ever dealt with a statute that was more poorly drafted,” the judge asked lawyers representing DeSantis’ administration.
During the hearing, Brian Barnes, an attorney with the Cooper & Kirk PLLC firm who represents the state, said First Amendment speech protections don’t apply to the social-media behemoths.
He pointed to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case known as Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights that Barnes said “definitely disproves this categorical First Amendment right to engage in — they call it editorial judgment, but I guess I would characterize it as silencing particular voices that the First Amendment always protects.”
Meanwhile, the Internet Association’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel Jon Berroya cautioned that the state could still appeal the injunciton.
“We are confident that the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals will recognize that IA members’ ability to freely engage in First Amendment-protected content moderation activities is essential to protect consumers from a wide range of harmful activity, including foreign disinformation campaigns and spam,” he said in a statement.
DeSantis named the bill a priority ahead of the 2021 Legislative Session after Twitter and other prominent social media companies banished then-President Donald Trump and other conservatives from their platforms following the U.S. Capitol riot.
DeSantis unveiled the proposal days after Trump left office and moved to Florida full-time. While the connection to the former President is clear, the Governor called it a bill for everyday Floridians.
That didn’t stop him from elaborating on the Trump connection when pressed by a reporter after signing the bill at Florida International University.
“When you deplatform the President of the United States, but you let Ayatollah (Ali) Khamenei talk about killing Jews, that is wrong,” DeSantis said.
Here is the ruling:
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.