Supreme Court to Decide How the First Amendment Applies to Social Media

The most important First Amendment cases of the internet era, to be heard by the Supreme Court on Monday, may turn on a single question: Do platforms like Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and X most closely resemble newspapers or shopping centers or phone companies?

The two cases arrive at the court garbed in politics, as they concern laws in Florida and Texas aimed at protecting conservative speech by forbidding leading social media sites from removing posts based on the views they express.

But the outsize question the cases present transcends ideology. It is whether tech platforms have free speech rights to make editorial judgments. Picking the apt analogy from the court’s precedents could decide the matter, but none of the available ones is a perfect fit.

If the platforms are like newspapers, they may publish what they want without government interference. If they are like private shopping centers open to the public, they may be required to let visitors say what they like. And if they are like phone companies, they must transmit everyone’s speech.

“It is not at all obvious how our existing precedents, which predate the age of the internet, should apply to large social media companies,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote in a 2022 dissent when one of the cases briefly reached the Supreme Court.

Supporters of the state laws say they foster free speech, giving the public access to all points of view. Opponents say the laws trample on the platforms’ own First Amendment rights and would turn them into cesspools of filth, hate and lies. One contrarian brief, from liberal professors, urged the justices to uphold the key provision of the Texas law despite the harm they said it would cause.

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