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Supreme Court Punts Ruling On Florida, Texas Social Media Laws, 1st Amendment

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OPINION: This article may contain commentary which reflects the author's opinion.


The Supreme Court launched a significant First Amendment challenge by overturning lower court decisions on Monday about two state laws that sought to prevent social media companies from removing users based on their political beliefs.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, stated that lower courts that heard the case incorrectly concentrated on the state challengers’ argument that the laws only extended to “the curated feeds offered by the largest and most paradigmatic social-media platforms.” Sites like Etsy and Gmail were brought up during debates as potential targets for the legislation’s unintended consequences.

“Today, we vacate both decisions for reasons separate from the First Amendment merits, because neither Court of Appeals properly considered the facial nature of NetChoice’s challenge,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority.

The regulations in Texas and Florida have the potential to impair businesses’ capacity to uphold their own policies and alter online free expression.

Though judges Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito submitted concurring opinions, none of the judges dissented. The ruling upholds injunctions issued by lower courts that prevented the laws from taking effect.

The Hill reported: “The two laws were passed in 2021 amid Republican backlash over how social media companies enforced their policies leading to bans and suspensions of prominent conservative figures for posting content that violated the platforms’ policies. Though the laws are very similar, they aren’t identical. The Florida law specifically points to political candidates as entities that can’t be deplatformed, while in Texas, the law stops platforms from removing content based on users’ “viewpoints.'”

“Tech industry groups NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA) challenged the laws as a violation of the private social media companies’ First Amendment rights, arguing that governments can’t dictate how they weigh which speech to host. The need for Supreme Court review grew more dire when federal appeals courts reached opposite conclusions on the matter. A panel of U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit judges sided the tech groups, upholding a block on major provisions of the Florida law, while the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit aligned with Texas, saying that the First Amendment doesn’t provide corporations an ‘unenumerated right to muzzle speech,'” the outlet added.

The Biden administration also expressed support for the tech groups and called on the high court to overturn the 5th Circuit decision.

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The U.S. Supreme Court also issued its much-anticipated ruling Monday on Trump’s claims of “immunity” from prosecution as the fate of at least two federal cases filed against him hung in the balance.

The justices ruled 6-3 that a former president has absolute immunity for his core constitutional powers.

The Supreme Court has ruled that Trump cannot be prosecuted for actions he took as president if those actions were part of his official duties. However, he can be prosecuted for things he did that were not part of his job as president. The lower courts must carefully examine each action to determine whether it is official or not.

NBC News reported: “The Supreme Court is expected to soon hand down an opinion on whether Trump is immune from prosecution for some of the actions he took to try to overturn the 2020 election results.
The immunity ruling will be the last case of the day. The court handed down two other decisions first, one on Republican-backed state laws seeking to regulate social media platforms and the other on when companies can challenge federal agency rule-making.”

“Chief Justice John Roberts said Friday that today would be the last day of rulings in the current term.
In a ruling Friday, the justices said a lower court must decide whether a Jan. 6 rioter could be prosecuted on the charge that he obstructed an official proceeding by taking part in the attack on the U.S. Capitol — a decision that could have an effect on related cases, including Trumps,” the outlet added.

The justices heard oral arguments in the case in late April. The question before the justices revolved around whether Trump can face criminal charges for allegedly conspiring to overturn the 2020 election results.

The court’s decision impacts Trump’s trial in Washington, D.C., presided over by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, which was initially set for March 4 but is currently on hold, as well as the progress of his trials in Florida and Georgia, the SCOTUS blog noted.

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Last summer, Trump was indicted on four counts stemming from Special Counsel Jack Smith’s investigation into the January 6, 2021, attacks on the U.S. Capitol. Trump, the indictment claims, created “widespread mistrust … through pervasive and destabilizing lies about election fraud” and then was engaged in three criminal conspiracies to target “a bedrock function of the United States federal government: the nation’s process of collecting, counting, and certifying the results of the presidential election.”

Following Chutkan’s denial of Trump’s request to dismiss the charges against him in December, Special Counsel Jack Smith took the matter to the Supreme Court, seeking their opinion on Trump’s claim to immunity without waiting for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to rule on Trump’s appeal. However, the justices denied Smith’s request on December 22, SCOTUS Blog noted, adding a summary of Trump’s legal arguments:

In his brief at the Supreme Court on the merits, Trump tells the justices that allowing the charges against him to go forward would pose “a mortal threat to the Presidency’s independence.” “The President cannot function,” Trump contends, “and the Presidency itself cannot retain its vital independence, if the President faces criminal prosecution for official acts once he leaves office,” because the threat of prosecution will hang over the president’s decision-making process.

Trump cites a law review article by then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who before becoming a judge worked in the George W. Bush White House, arguing that “a President who is concerned about an ongoing criminal investigation is almost inevitably going to do a worse job as President.“ The same is true, Trump continues, “if that criminal investigation is waiting in the wings until he leaves office.”

Trump maintains that a president can never be prosecuted for his official acts. He points first to a “long history” of an absence of prosecutions, notwithstanding what he characterizes as “ample motive and opportunity” – everything from the appointment by John Quincy Adams of Henry Clay as secretary of state “after Clay delivered the 1824 election to him in the House” to President Joe Biden’s “mismanagement of the southern border.”

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Trump argued that a president cannot be prosecuted for official acts, citing a historical absence of prosecutions despite perceived motives and opportunities. He pointed to instances like John Quincy Adams appointing Henry Clay as secretary of state after Clay’s role in delivering the 1824 election to Adams, as well as President Biden’s handling of the southern border as examples.

Trump contended that immunity from criminal prosecution stems from both the Constitution and the principle of separation of powers. He highlighted the executive vesting clause, which grants the president the “executive power,” asserting that courts cannot interfere with this authority due to the separation of powers principle.

Trump also leaned on another provision of the Constitution, referred to as the impeachment judgment clause. This clause stipulates that someone who is impeached and convicted can still be indicted, tried, and punished “according to Law.”

“Finally, Trump urges the justices to reject another theory on which the court of appeals had relied – specifically, the idea that a president is not entitled to immunity from criminal prosecution if his conduct was purportedly motivated by a desire to stay in power illegally,” SCOTUS Blog noted.

“Not only has the Supreme Court made clear that there is no role for courts in reviewing a president’s official actions, but it has also held that the purpose or motive behind the alleged misconduct does not play a role when determining whether an official is immune,” the site added.

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