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The Supreme Court to hear a case that could help define the future of the internet

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, the Supreme Court hears a case that could help define the future of the internet. Legal experts say it is one of the most important First Amendment cases in a generation. The question is whether states like Florida and Texas can force social media platforms to carry content they find objectionable or hateful. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: After the Capitol riot in early 2021, some big social media sites booted former President Donald Trump from their platforms, fearing his posts could provoke more unrest. Republicans in two states took action.

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GREG ABBOTT: Freedom of speech is under attack in Texas.

JOHNSON: That's Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

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ABBOTT: There is a dangerous movement by some social media companies to silence conservative ideas and values. This is wrong, and we will not allow it in Texas.

JOHNSON: Abbott signed a law that prevents social media companies from banning users based on their political viewpoints. The Texas law paves the way for people who are restricted to sue to get back onto those sites. A separate law in Florida prevents the social media platforms from rapidly changing their terms of service and requires them to provide an individual explanation to users about why their posts have been edited or removed. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis aired his concerns.

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RON DESANTIS: If they engage in wrong think, or they go to the wrong political event, then all of a sudden, they can act in concert and just take you off. You need to have protection against that.

JOHNSON: The laws in Florida and Texas apply to the biggest sites - companies that include Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Matt Schruers is president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a big trade group for those sites that sued over the state laws.

MATT SCHRUERS: There is nothing more Orwellian than the government trying to dictate what viewpoints are distributed in the name of free expression. That's what's at issue in this case.

JOHNSON: Long-standing Supreme Court precedent says state and federal governments cannot force people or businesses to speak, he says. Schruers says the laws in Florida and Texas violate that principle, and they interfere with how the sites operate.

SCHRUERS: It is necessary to have guidelines, terms of use, to ensure that a community isn't polluted. And that's everything from posting dog pictures in the cat forum to barbecue in the vegan forum to far more serious things like trying to groom children in a children's site.

JOHNSON: In court papers, lawyers for Texas and Florida say the social media platforms are discriminating against conservative and religious views. John Whitehead runs the Rutherford Institute, a conservative-leaning nonprofit group. Whitehead says the big social media sites have become the center of people's lives, and they should not be engaging in any censorship.

JOHN WHITEHEAD: It's out there to make people think. In other words, you can disagree. If someone puts something foolish on, let's say, Facebook, people should respond immediately and start a debate. Debating is the key, not eliminating.

JOHNSON: Other allies of Texas and Florida argue the sites are merely hosting content, not making editorial judgments that deserve lots of First Amendment protection. Carl Szabo is general counsel of NetChoice, another big trade group for social media platforms that's involved in these lawsuits.

CARL SZABO: These cases are going to define the future of the internet.

JOHNSON: At stake, he says, is who controls what people hear, say and read online.

SZABO: Everyone - left, right or center - should oppose government control of speech because as much as it may be your person in the White House today, we know that that will not be forever. And that's why the First Amendment is so important and so paramount.

JOHNSON: The justices will have to decide between radically different conceptions of what social media is. Are these platforms more like old-time phone companies, basically open to everyone without filtering, or more like bookstores or newspapers, places that edit and curate information that get the highest level of First Amendment protection? And that could shape the future of social media. Again, Carl Szabo.

SZABO: There is a U.S. Supreme Court decision called Miami Herald v. Tornillo where the state of Florida tried to force the Miami Herald to carry op-eds they didn't want to carry. And a nearly unanimous Supreme Court said, sorry, Florida, you can't force the Miami Herald to carry an op-ed they don't want to carry.

JOHNSON: He says that analysis from 1974 is just like today, when Florida is trying to make the platforms print every single letter to the editor. Users don't want that, he says, and neither do advertisers. The two trade associations, NetChoice and CCIA, are backed by groups across the political spectrum - from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, which is linked to the Koch brothers, to the American Civil Liberties Union. A bipartisan group of national security experts weighed in, too. Rupa Bhattacharyya is a former Justice Department lawyer who now works at Georgetown University Law Center.

RUPA BHATTACHARYYA: Social media content moderation plays a really important role in keeping some of the worst of the hate and the violence off of the internet.

JOHNSON: She says homegrown extremists like the Proud Boys and foreign groups like the Islamic State have deployed social media to attract converts and broadcast violence.

BHATTACHARYYA: The Christchurch shooter in New Zealand livestreamed his activities in an effort to inspire others to follow his example, and that has real-world consequences.

JOHNSON: She says social media platforms should face common-sense regulations, including consumer protection and anti-fraud laws. And she says the current content moderation policies of some of the big sites have flaws. But, Bhattacharya adds...

BHATTACHARYYA: They're not perfect, and they don't always do the best job, but they are better than nothing.

JOHNSON: And she says nothing, no content moderation at all, is what will happen if the Supreme Court upholds the sweeping laws in Texas and Florida. Volunteer moderators of a Reddit site devoted to law in the Supreme Court filed their own brief in the case to deliver a very particular message. The court papers cited hateful speech and threats against the justices. Moderators say they delete those things now, but under the state laws, they might face lawsuits for removing trolls who drown out their chats with vulgar or racist posts. The state laws are not about protecting speech, the moderators say. Instead, they're commandeering someone else's microphone to spread a message.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIZMO VARILLAS' "EL DORADO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.

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