Florida has taken on a leading role in Donald Trump’s war on social media companies, after Governor Ron DeSantis signed a new law allowing legal action against the “deplatforming” of political candidates.
DeSantis, a staunch Trump ally, portrays the measure as protection against “censorship” by “Silicon Valley elites”.
Free speech experts counter that the law blatantly contravenes the first amendment to the US constitution, will fall under legal challenge and is merely meant to appeal to the former president’s supporters.
“This law looks like a political freebie,” Michael Froomkin, a professor of internet law at the University of Miami, told Wired. “You get to pander and nothing bad happens, because there’s no chance this will survive in court. This is so obviously unconstitutional, you wouldn’t even put it on an exam.”
Trump was banned from Twitter and removed from other platforms over his false claims of a stolen election and for inciting the deadly 6 January attack on the US Capitol. He has launched a blog which has attracted a meagre audience.
Under Florida’s Stop Social Media Censorship Act, which DeSantis signed on Monday, social media giants such as Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter could be fined up to $250,000 a day for every statewide political candidate removed from their platforms, and $25,000 a day for other candidates.
Users must be warned if fact checks or other notices of disputed information are attached to posts. Those users, or the Florida state attorney, can sue tech companies for violations.
“We took action to ensure that ‘We the People’, real Floridians across the Sunshine State, are guaranteed protection against the Silicon Valley elites,” DeSantis said.
“Many in our state have experienced censorship and other tyrannical behavior firsthand in Cuba and Venezuela. If Big Tech censors enforce rules inconsistently, to discriminate in favor of the dominant Silicon Valley ideology, they will now be held accountable.”
Those invited by DeSantis to the bill signing included James O’Keefe, a far-right activist whose Project Veritas operation has engaged in disinformation campaigns to expose what it sees as bias in the media. Tactics have included attempting to place fake stories.
Democrats warned that the new bill was unconstitutional and would leave taxpayers on the hook for the costs of failed efforts to defend it.
“Ultimately we’re probably going to lose and the people who are going to pay are really not us sitting at these tables, it’s going to be the taxpayers,” the state Democratic congressman Joe Geller said during one debate, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Corbin Barthold, internet policy counsel for the advocacy group TechFreedom, called the law “a brazen assault on the first amendment”.
“DeSantis wants to compel websites to speak,” he said. “He can’t. He wants consumer protection law to erase free-speech rights. It won’t. DeSantis is attacking the very constitutional principles Republicans just spent four years putting conservatives on the courts to protect.”
DeSantis insisted the law was about discrimination.
“When you de-platform the president of the United States but you let Ayatollah Khamenei talk about killing Jews, that is wrong,” he told reporters in Miami.