Guest Editorials, Opinion

Judge slams Fla.’s attack on the First Amendment

In their frenzy to protect Donald Trump’s “free speech” rights to spread falsehoods on social media, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republicans appear to have misunderstood — or flat-out ignored — the First Amendment.

That beloved 45-word amendment to the U.S. Constitution gets its fair share of mentions in political speeches. But, in Florida, it sometimes applies only to those who toe the line of the party in power. 

One group that really gets under the governor’s skin are Silicon Valley’s “Big Tech” firms, the so-called “woke” folks who banned Trump from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube after the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol last year. Despite warnings that he would run afoul of the U.S. Constitution, DeSantis pushed a bill through the Legislature that, among other things, fined social-media companies for de-platforming political candidates in the run-up to an election. 

To no one’s surprise, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that the law restricts tech companies’ First Amendment rights. In a decision ironically written by a Trump appointee, appellate Judge Kevin Newsom, the court dressed down Senate Bill 7072: “The government can’t tell a private person or entity what to say or how to say it.”

The court upheld most of a preliminary injunction imposed last year by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle.

After the appeals-court ruling, a DeSantis spokesman posted on Twitter, “Our office is currently reviewing the options for appeal. We will continue to fight big tech censorship and protect the First Amendment rights of Floridians.”

How odd to bring up the First Amendment, given that it makes it clear that, “Congress shall make no law” abridging the freedom of speech (as well the exercise of religion, freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances). In other words, the amendment is largely understood to restrict government regulations on speech — the very thing that DeSantis and lawmakers attempted to do.

Trump, in or out of elected office, has no “First Amendment right” to post whatever he wants on Twitter, just like he doesn’t have the right to force, for example, a newspaper to run a column he’s written. Such companies are privately owned and allowed to regulate the content that they feature. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974 ruled the Miami Herald was not obligated to print a response by a state House candidate to an editorial, striking down the state’s “right-to-reply” law. Likewise, Judge Newson wrote social-media sites exercise “editorial judgment to curate the content that they display and disseminate.” That said, Elon Musk, who has made an offer to buy Twitter, says he would reverse the ban on Trump, as would be his right.

DeSantis isn’t entirely wrong about the need to hold tech companies accountable and about users’ lack of control over their personal information. The appellate court allowed parts of the Florida law to stand, some of which are reasonable. For example, the law requires social-media platforms to publish their standards for determining how they censor, de-platform and “shadow ban” users. That’s overdue accountability we can support.

This editorial first appeared in The Miami Herald on Wednesday. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.