The Florida state legislature recently passed—by overwhelming majorities in both of their Republican-controlled chambers—a new law that imposes fines on social media corporations for deplatforming political candidates.
Governor Ron DeSantis called for the legislation and is expected to sign it, which would make Florida the first state in the nation to enact such a policy.
The Florida bill prohibits social media companies from permanently deleting or banning political candidates, but allows suspensions of up to 14 days. It still allows services to remove individual posts that violate its terms of service as well.
If disobeyed, the state’s Elections Commission would be directed to fine a company $250,000 a day for statewide candidates and $25,000 a day for all others. Additionally, the law requires the companies to provide information about removals and to apply their rules consistently.
While Republican lawmakers have insisted this measure has nothing to do with former President Trump’s removal from Twitter, many have connected the dots between the two events.
Netchoice, a trade group for internet corporations, testified against the bill. Their president, Steve DelBianco, said that private entities should have the right to decide what’s best for their users without (government) interference. He went on to state, “The First Amendment makes clear that government may not regulate the speech of private individuals or businesses. This includes government action that compels speech by forcing a private social media platform to carry content that is against its policies or preferences.”
Republicans say the legislation is needed to curb the influence of the nation’s leading social media companies who have outsized influence over the national conversation, but notably, they exempted from the law the state’s most famous corporation: The Walt Disney Company.
A provision in the bill gives an exemption to “ any information service, system, internet search engine, or access software provider operated by a company that owns and operates a theme park or large entertainment complex.” This amendment was added towards the end of the process, proving the Tallahassee capitol may maintain more than a few mouseholes for Disney’s lobbyists.
OMG. Disney got itself a carve out for Florida's social media censorship bill. https://t.co/PZeR3lz2eW— Mike Masnick (@mmasnick) April 30, 2021
Disney, as you may recall, recently “canceled” conservative Hollywood star Gina Carano, making the exemption all the more striking.
Republican State Representative Blaise Ingoglia said that exemption was included so that the Disney Plus streaming service “isn’t caught up in this.” Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis says that 77 percent of the state’s budget is funded through tourism, and Disney brings in more than $700 million in tax revenue each year alone. Given these factors, it is unsurprising state lawmakers avoided any action that might spur Disney to move the cheese.
The law will inevitably be challenged in the courts where it will likely be overturned as unconstitutional. Forcing a private business to host speech by a political candidate is one of the most overt violations of the First Amendment’s right to free speech in modern history. And the carve-out for Disney means the law also violates the Fourteenth Amendment's promise of equal application of the law. Lastly, the legislation violates Section 230, which ensures that First Amendment protections are applied in technology spaces.
In short, this law is an egregious violation of our Constitution, our founding principles, and our belief in individual liberty.
Disney is not wrong to lobby its way into an exclusion from an unjust and unconstitutional law, though it would be acting unethically if it initially lobbied for the bill and then worked to exclude itself. But their actions still show that the government is beholden to special interests, even while claiming to implement regulations that restrain them.
If applied, Florida’s bill would demolish small competitors who may be emerging in the field, while Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter could easily absorb the fine. Instead, officials who claim to value limited government should be working to remove regulations and make it easier for new competitors to enter the market.
It is clear that we are dealing with a culture (in politics, business, and the media) in which the spirit of free speech is increasingly under threat. But we don’t beat them by joining them or by using the government to violate free speech laws in the name of “protecting” free speech.
In this case, it is clear that the best laid plans of mice and men will go awry. It would be better to follow the plans laid out in the Constitution instead.