A federal appeals court has once again backed a Texas law that would fundamentally remake social media by forcing companies such as Meta and Twitter to carry most content, including hate speech.
In a ruling released Friday, a three-judge panel on the Fifth Circuit vacated a trial court's preliminary injunction, which had paused the measure during a lawsuit over its constitutionality. The vast majority of scholars and civil liberties advocates say that, in telling a private company what content it must allow, the state's law violates both free speech protections and decades' worth of legal precedent.
The judges argued in their Friday ruling, however, that Texas law regulated the platforms' conduct, not their views. The decision also asserts that Twitter is a "monopolist," and argued social media firms are more like phone companies, which must allow all customers.
Earlier in the year, the same appeals court, after a hearing in which the judges revealed a poor grasp of technology, overruled the trial court and let the law go into effect. The Fifth Circuit is known as the most conservative circuit court in the U.S. Soon after that decision, however, the Supreme Court ruled that the appeals court's decision to let the law go into effect was inappropriate — albeit by a narrower margin than tech advocates were hoping to see — and put a pause on enforcement, pending the outcome of the appeal.
Many tech companies and proponents of free speech had expected the appeals court's ruling, which technically focused on the appropriateness of the trial court's initial injunction. The trial court can still find that the law is unconstitutional, but the tech trade groups that had sued to stop the law are likely to appeal to the full Fifth Circuit, or again to the Supreme Court.
In either case, the ongoing litigation will almost certainly set up a lengthy court battle that could prompt the high court to weigh in on the legal status quo underlying content on the internet.
This story was updated Sept. 16 with additional details.