In another blow to Elon Musk's quest for absolute free speech, a federal judge has rejected Musk and his attorneys' argument that a California law requiring social media companies to disclose their content-moderation policies and procedures.
Musk brought the lawsuit back in September, in the same week he decided to sue the Anti-Defamation League for defamation, arguing that the law's intent was "to pressure social media platforms to ‘eliminate’ certain constitutionally protected content viewed by the state as problematic."
The 2022 law, which began as Assembly Bill 587, was designed to force social media platforms to enact procedures and create policies around hate speech, extremism, harassment, and disinformation, and to inform the public what those policies are.
U.S. District Judge William Shubb, based in Sacramento, issued an eight-page ruling Thursday denying X Corp.'s request for a preliminary injunction of the law based on First Amendment grounds, as Bloomberg first reported.
"While the reporting requirement does appear to place a substantial compliance burden on social medial companies, it does not appear that the requirement is unjustified or unduly burdensome within the context of First Amendment law," Judge Shubb wrote.
X's attorneys had originally argued that it was "difficult to reliably define" what hate speech is — however this has been an issue that social media companies, including the former Twitter when it was a public company, have been grappling with and honing policies against for over a decade. And, the X Corp. suit contended that the law "compels companies like X Corp. to engage in speech against their will."
Musk had pledged, under his "free speech absolutist" ethos, to broadly allow all speech that wasn't inciting violence on the platform, going so far as to invite back formerly banned individuals of the right-wing fringe including Alex Jones.
And as The Verge notes, Musk has disinvested in content moderation broadly, having gutted the Trust & Safety team late last year, though the company still ostensibly has a content moderation policy. How well it's being enforced is another story.
In his ruling, Judge Shubb said of the law's requirements, "The reports required by AB 587 are purely factual. The reporting requirement merely requires social media companies to identify their existing content moderation policies, if any, related to the specified categories. The required disclosures are also uncontroversial. The mere fact that the reports may be ‘tied in some way to a controversial issue’ does not make the reports themselves controversial."
The Supreme Court will be weighing in soon about the extent to which states can dictate how social media companies police content. That is in a suit brought against the states of Florida and Texas, each of which passed Republican-backed laws that call for transparency in how and what speech is censored on social platforms like Facebook. Those laws came after years in which Republicans have complained of "shadow banning" and anti-Right bias on the platforms.
Photo: Kelly Sikkema