The Eleventh Circuit Opines that Much of Florida’s New Regulation of Social Media May Violate the First Amendment, in Contrast to Recent Orders of the Fifth Circuit to the Contrary Now Awaiting Emergency Review in the Supreme Court


NetChoice, LLC and Computer & Communications Industry Association, d/b/a CCIA v. Attorney General of the State of Florida, et al., No. 21-12355 (11th Cir.) Order and Opinion issued May 23, 2022, affirming in part and vacating in part an injunction issued by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida.


Several states, including Florida and Texas, have enacted legislation aimed at compelling social media to be open to all, without banning, de-prioritizing, or de-platforming entities or posts because they present disfavored views. Texas’s law applies to the general practices of large social media sites, while Florida has addressed access by political candidates and journalists.

When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit refused to enjoin the effectiveness of Texas’s statute, NetChoice and CCIA presented an emergency petition to the U.S. Supreme Court on May 13, 2022. Just as briefing closed on the emergency petition, the Eleventh Circuit issued its opinion, which has been added to the record of the emergency petition as supplemental authority.

Unlike the Fifth Circuit, holding its legal cards close to the vest, so to speak, and issuing a non-unanimous order without opinion, the Eleventh Circuit has published a 67 page opinion examining whether it is likely that NetChoice and CCIA will succeed in demonstrating that Florida’s law is unconstitutional. Concluding that it is likely that the law will be shown to be unconstitutional, and observing that ongoing infringements of First Amendment rights are presumed to cause irreparable harm, and noting that neither the state nor the public has any interest in enforcing unconstitutional law, the Eleventh Circuit has upheld most, but not all, of the injunctive relief granted by the Northern District of Florida.

Principles Endure. The Eleventh Circuit opened its opinion by noting that new principles are not necessarily needed when new technologies emerge. The First Amendment continues to prohibit government interference in speech while protecting the speech of private actors.

‘Not Really Private’ Private Entities. Florida asserts that social media platforms are not truly private entities and has enacted legislation prohibiting de-platforming political candidates, de-prioritizing messages about political candidates, or removing content provided by an “journalistic enterprises” because of its content.

The Eleventh Circuit Disagrees. The appellate court has found that social media entities are private actors that enjoy First Amendment protections. Editorial judgement about content are protected. That protection would be unconstitutionally burdened by Florida’s legislation, not only in its editorial and content-based directives but also in its demands for disclosure of a rationale supporting any and all content moderation decisions. These observations support enjoining aspects of the Florida law.

How It Works. The Eleventh Circuit has offered a ‘primer’ about what social media platforms are” collectors of others’ speech, broadly defined to include text, photography, and video “posts” published to others. Platforms may have billions of users or exist as smaller sites for specialized interests. Several social media platforms are household names: Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Private Enterprises, Private Choices. No one is obliged to avail themselves of the content social media entities provide. The government cannot restrict citizens’ access to social media platforms but that right of access attaching to citizens does not include a right to compel the platforms to accept or consume any content.

Whose Speech Is It? Much, if not most, speech on social media platforms is not created by the platforms themselves, but some speech belongs to the platforms, as is the case with publishing terms of service or community standards defining what is permitted, or creating addenda or warning, or publish a platform’s own content.

Neither Conduits nor Storage Devices, but Curators. Social media enterprises are best seen as curators and arrangers of content according to users’ wishes, while at the same time removing content that violates the terms of service or community standards.

These activities make the platforms active intermediaries who have created virtual spaces where participants can be both speakers and listeners.

The Eleventh Circuit views content moderation as curation that promotes the creation and development of niches and communities, and promotes values and points of view.

Why Florida Sought Legislative Intervention. Florida’s social media legislation was intended to address perceived silencing of conservative views by technology ‘oligarchs’.

Florida perceives social media platforms to be akin to public utilities which, as common carriers, are to remain accessible to all and to viewpoints.

Sweeping and Problematic. The Eleventh Circuit notes that Florida’s law, while aimed at “big tech oligarchs,” as defined by size and revenue, does sweep in smaller sites, such as Wikipedia and Etsy. An initial specific exclusion of Disney Corporation was repealed.

Three features of the Florida legislation are problematic, in the appellate court’s view: content moderation, disclosure obligations, and user data retention.

Strict in Theory, Fatal in Fact. The Eleventh Circuit perceives that Florida’s legislation regulates speech within the meaning of the First Amendment, and its content moderation provisions are subject to strict scrutiny, making it unlikely the legislation will survive.

Pre-Emption Awaits Another Day. As the court based its analysis on the First Amendment, it is not necessary to consider the issue of federal preemption of the Florida law by 47 U.S.C. Section 230.

Gutting Editorial Discretion. Denying social media platforms the ability to prohibit some posts, as the Florida law does, impairs the very exercise of discretion that the First Amendment prohibits, the Eleventh Circuit observes.

Not an Indiscriminate Host. The notion that by opening a social media space to some — essentially serving as a host to speakers — a social media enterprise must open that speech to all, following historic decisions, failed to persuade the Eleventh Circuit with respect to the Florida legislation.

Social Media’s Own Speech. If the issue of mandating open doors and open access were not enough to impair the social media companies’ editorial discretion, and by extension, their First Amendment rights, the Florida law, in the court’s view, impedes the platforms’ capacity to exercise their own speech rights.

Common Carrier Analogy Fails. Seeking to minimize the impact of First Amendment review, the state has relied heavily on the notion that social media platforms are common carriers indefensible to society, an idea rejected by the Eleventh Circuit notwithstanding that the court was uncertain whether the state asserts that the common carrier status has already been attained or whether the state would legislate that status into existence.

Social media platforms do not behave as common carriers available to all to transmit communications of their own choosing, the Eleventh Circuit observes. Social media platforms may appear to be open to all but in fact users must accept the platforms’ terms and community standards. Moreover, Supreme Court opinions have not considered cable operators to be common carriers, and the Court has declined to place online media on the same footing as broadcast media for supervisory and regulatory purposes.

The Eleventh Circuit sees that online platforms as analogous to cable providers that retain editorial discretion over their offerings.

Finally, Congress has specifically distinguished and exempted internet services form other communications media in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and within the same legislation has protected social media from liability for publication in ways not extended to common carriers that must serve all, the Eleventh Circuit reasoned.

What Part of “Constitutional Guarantees” Did Florida Not Understand? If the social media platforms are not already common carriers, which the appellate court finds they are not, the state possesses no power to legislate the platforms’ First Amendment rights out of existence by nomenclature. Even if the social media platforms’ vast market powers suggest that they ought to be treated as common carriers, this would not carry the day. Legislation cannot create in social media the fundamental characteristics inherent in and required of common carriers to hold themselves out to the entirely of the public, without exception. While some entitles may come to be a means of rendering services of public interest, marketplace success in itself will not compel forfeiture of First Amendment rights.

The exercise of expressive editorial judgment by the social media platforms means that those platforms are not common carriers. Any imposition of limits on their First Amendment rights must survive strict scrutiny, which, with some exceptions, is not the case with Florida’s law.

The Nature of the Violations. Florida’s law would restrict editorial judgment through forbidding de-platforming political candidates, manipulating the presentation of content by or about candidates, and censoring or manipulating journalistic enterprises. Legislatively requiring consistency in decision- making and imposing time limits on restrictions present similar, if less obvious, impositions on social media platforms.

Permitting users to opt out of the platforms’ curation would interfere with the editorial processes and discretion exercise by the platforms to those users.

Compelled disclosures of platform activities inherently burden editorial judgment, but such commercial disclosures are subject to lesser scrutiny.

The Eleventh Circuit finds no First Amendment issues arise with respect to requiring platforms to permit users to access their stored records for at least sixty days after de-platforming.

Gimlet Eye or Casual Glance: Standards of Review. Content based speech regulations must survive strict scrutiny. While the state has admitted that the aim of its legislation is to address perceived mistreatment of conservatives and conservative views, this does not persuade the Eleventh Circuit to adopt the technology associations’ argument that this causes the entirety of the legislation to fail.

The state’s motivation in enacting legislation is not outcome determinative in review of an otherwise facially constitutional law. Moreover, the applicability of the law to some social media platforms and not others, while of concern, is insufficient to condemn the legislation in its entirety.

The Eleventh Circuit’s Reasoning. The appellate panel has concluded that NetChoice and CCIA may succeed on the merits of their content moderation claims. As some provisions refer specifically to content messaging, those trigger strict scrutiny, whereas de-platforming and opt-outs are neutral.

The “consistency” demanded of the social media platforms partakes both of content-based and neutral regulation. Because at their core they involve expressive activity, intermediary scrutiny is triggered, but even at that level, they are not likely to survive.

Disclosure of factual information in commercial settings need not meet even intermediate scrutiny, and may be reviewed on a rational relationship basis, making those regulations likely to survive.

The Eleventh Circuit has concluded that none of the content moderation measures would survive intermediate scrutiny and that the ‘explanatory’ disclosure requirements — why decisions were made — is likely unconstitutional. However,there is no likelihood of success on the merits of the rest of the legislation.

When intermediate scrutiny is applied to the legislation’s content moderation restrictions, the court is asked to consider whether the content moderation restrictions are narrowly drawn, that is, no greater than is essential, to further a substantial government interest unrelated to speech suppression.

The content moderation restrictions do not, in the court’s view, further any substantial government interest, which does not seem to have been seriously argued by the state. (Slip op. at 53.)

While it might be that the state, had they pursued such arguments, would claim an interest in curtailing private censorship, or in fostering use of of the internet, the government has no interest in “leveling the expressive playing field,” nor may it intervene where there is no right to a social media account.

The idea of restricting the speech of some to enlarge the voices of others is “wholly foreign to the First Amendment,” the Eleventh Circuit has concluded. (Slip op. at 59, quoting Buckley v. Valeo, 424, U.S. 1, 48-49 (1976)).

The assertion of a state interest in “promoting the widespread dissemination of information from a multiplicity of sources” would fail, as social media platforms do not act as gatekeepers, exercising control over most or all information. (Slip. Op. at 49, quoting Turning Broadcasting System v. FCC, 512 U.S. 622, 662 (1994).) A wealth of communications resources exist and are available to speakers Even if they are not of the magnitude of the social media platforms, this does not justify inhibiting the speech rights of private social media companies as the Florida law would do.

Moreover, the appellate court thinks it unlikely that the government has an interest in private utilities’ consistent application of rules or in prohibiting users from changing messages within certain time frames, in addressing sequencing of content, or in permitting or precluding participation in these processes.

Even if a substantial government interest were found, there is little likelihood that the preclusive restrictions and mandated activities are “no greater than is essential to the furtherance of interests.” (Slip op. at 61, citing United States v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367, 377 (1968).

Prohibitions on “deplatforming, deprioritizing, or shadow-banning” would make it impossible to address obscenities or terrorist threats, and indeed raises the specter of minors’ access to pornography. (Slip op. at 62). This wide a sweep stands the narrowness constraints applicable to legislation of speech regulations on its head, the court concludes.

Compelled disclosures. Disclosure requirements will survive constitutional scrutiny if as commercial speech they are related to protection of consumers, which is a recognized state interest, and are not unjustified or unduly burdensome, effectively chilling protected speech. (Slip op. at 63, citing Milavetz, Gallop & Milavetz v. United States, 559 U.S. 229, 250 (2010).

An exception to the likely unconstitutional disclosure requirements is requiring that information be provided to consumers about the terms of access to the platform and that the content moderation policies are not misleading. The court observed that there has not been a sufficient showing that publications of standards or that providing information about rules changes, views, and advertising information would be unduly burdensome.

The court has agreed with NetChoice that requiring detailed justification for and notice of each content moderation is likely unconstitutional even under commercial speech standards. The time constraints, compliance burdens, and prohibitive fines for insufficient “thoroughness” compound those burdens.

And in Conclusion. The remaining factors requiring review to substantiate injunctive relief are easily met, the Eleventh Circuit has determined. Ongoing First Amendment violations are presumptively irreparably harmful, and neither the state nor the public has any interest in enforcing an unconstitutional statute.

The district court’s order will be upheld in part and vacated in part, and the case remanded.

WHERE MATTERS STAND. JustLawful is not sage enough to know what the Supreme Court will do now that there is an apparent, if only partially articulated, conflict between two federal circuit courts of appeal. Others’ prognostications are welcomed.

In a Nutshell. Here is a link to the Eleventh Circuit’s synopsis of its parsing of the Florida statute.

Summary 11th Cir. Opinion

And in Full:

Here is the entire opinion.

NetChoice v. Florida No. 21-12355 (11th Cir.) Opinion May 23, 2022

 

Funny Things Have Happened on the Way to the Fora: Justice Thomas Proffers Adapting Common Carrier Law to Digital Media to Address Speech Concerns

Biden v. Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, No. 20-197 (April 5, 2021).


Former President Trump petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari review of a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit which held that his use of his personal Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump for administration messages made the account a public space.  As such, the former president could not block others’ or their responses without violating the First Amendment. 

 

In view of the change in presidents, the Supreme Court granted the petition but remanded it to the Second Circuit to vacate its opinion and dismiss the case as moot.

 

While in agreement with the Court’s determination, Justice Thomas has written separately that subsequent events and a more careful analysis of the balance of powers between digital media platforms and its users calls into question the applicability of First Amendment analysis.  

 

Justice Thomas is of the view that the time has arrived for a close look at digital platforms, particularly where it now appears that extraordinarily broad powers reside in the hands of a few individuals and entities that control the internet. 

 

Twitter banned former President Trump from its platform, which Twitter may do, according to Twitter’s rules of use, for any reason or for no reason.  This, in Justice Thomas’ view, highlights how extensive the digital platforms’ powers are.  It is less readily apparent that an individual has created a public forum, traditionally defined as a ‘“government controlled” space, when a private individual or entity can unilaterally deny access to its digital platform.

 

If First Amendment analyses become an uneasy — if not wholly inappropriate — fit in such circumstances, Justice Thomas has suggested that resort to the common law and subsequent developments concerning regulation of common carriers may present opportunities for legislative action.  Where common carriers such as communications and transportation entities receive special privileges as a result of government regulation, they also must, as a result, adopt responsibilities, including limitations on a private entitiy’s rights of exclusion such that common carriers must treat clients and customers equally.  While market power has traditionally been a part of common carrier analyses, it is not a determining factor:  entities of differing sizes and contours may be “common carriers” responsible for transport, whether on highways or rails or telephone wires or otherwise.  



This framework, grounded in common carrier constructs as well as civil rights concepts applicable to public accommodations, might offer an opportunity to make inroads in the nation’s understanding of how best to adapt the law to the digital area. Perhaps best of all, Justice Thomas has observed, this approach could aid all concerned without requiring that digital platforms sacrifice their own First Amendment rights or be perceived to have endorsed any of the speech presented on its platforms.  


Supreme Court Determination 

20-197 Biden v. Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia Univ. (04_05_2021)

Second Circuit Decision Regarding Rehearing en banc:

Knight First Amendment Inst at Columbia Univ v Trump 953 F3d 216 Mem 2nd Cir 2020

Second Circuit Decision on Appeal:

Knight First Amendment Inst At Columbia Univ v Trump 928 F3d 226 2nd Cir 2019

Opinion of the United States District Court

Knight First Amendment Inst At Columbia Univ v Trump 302 F Supp 3d 541 SD NY 2018