Social media and gun laws await high court rulings

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Social media apps on an iPhone. Illustration by hapabapa via iStock for WMNF News.

By Jim Saunders ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — With the U.S. Supreme Court nearing its annual recess, justices are expected to rule in cases about social-media platforms and guns that could have major implications for Florida.

The social media ruling likely will decide whether Florida can carry out a 2021 state law that placed restrictions on platforms such as Facebook and X. The gun ruling in a Texas case could help determine the fate of a 2018 Florida law that barred people under age 21 from buying rifles and shotguns.

Justices have heard arguments in the social media and gun cases and typically go into recess in late June or early July. That means rulings could come in the next two weeks, with the next expected release of opinions on Thursday.

Here are brief looks at the issues:

— Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature passed the social-media restrictions after Facebook and X, then known as Twitter, blocked former President Donald Trump from their platforms after Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

The law, in part, would prevent large platforms from banning political candidates from their sites and require companies to publish — and apply consistently — standards about issues such as banning users or blocking their content.

The tech-industry groups NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association challenged the constitutionality of the law on First Amendment grounds. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction blocking the measure, and most of Hinkle’s ruling was upheld by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Hinkle described the law as “riddled with imprecision and ambiguity.”

Florida took the case to the Supreme Court, which also is considering a similar case from Texas. During arguments in February, Florida Solicitor General Henry Whitaker said social media companies do not have a First Amendment right “to apply their censorship policies in an inconsistent manner and to censor and deplatform certain users.”

The state contended that the First Amendment does not apply to the law, in part, because the platforms are similar to “common carriers,” such as telephone and telegraph companies.

“Common carriers have always conducted their businesses subject to general rules of decorum … upwards of 99 percent of what goes on the platforms is basically passed through without review,” Whitaker said.

But Paul Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general who represents the tech-industry groups, said private companies’ decisions about disseminating third-party-created content to the public are editorial judgments protected by the First Amendment.

“If you are telling the websites that they can’t censor speakers, you can’t turn around and say you’re not regulating expressive activity. It’s all over this law,” Clement told justices.

— After the 2018 mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 people, lawmakers and then-Gov. Rick Scott approved barring people under age 21 from buying rifles and other long guns. Federal law already prevented people under 21 from buying handguns.

The National Rifle Association challenged the Florida law on Second Amendment grounds. After Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker rejected the challenge, the NRA took the case to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

But the Atlanta-based appeals court last July effectively put the case on hold as it awaits a Supreme Court ruling in a Texas gun case.

The Texas and Florida gun cases share key questions about how to carry out a 2022 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in a case known as New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which said gun laws must be “consistent with this nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”

In the Texas case, Zackey Rahimi challenged a 1994 federal law that prevented gun possession by people under domestic violence restraining orders. Pointing to what is known as the Bruen decision, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the law was unconstitutional.

While the details of the Florida case are different, the NRA has argued that the Bruen decision would bar preventing people under 21 from buying long guns.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in November in the Texas gun case. As an indication of how the 11th Circuit sees the connection between the cases, it issued an order last July that postponed filing briefs in the Florida case until after the Supreme Court decides the Texas case.

While not receiving as much attention as the challenge to the law about the ages of gun buyers, another Florida gun-related case also could be affected by the Supreme Court ruling in the Texas case. The Florida case involves a challenge to a federal prohibition on medical marijuana patients buying and possessing guns.

Then-Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and other plaintiffs filed the case and appealed after U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor ruled against them. The 11th Circuit said in February it was holding the case “in abeyance” pending the Supreme Court decision in the Texas gun case.

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