State Points to Disney Measure in Tech Battle

TALLAHASSEE — With a federal appeals court poised to hear arguments Thursday in a battle about Florida’s attempt to crack down on large social-media companies, the state says newly passed legislation involving Walt Disney Co. short-circuited one of the issues in the case.

The legal fight centers on a 2021 law that targeted companies such as Facebook and Twitter over decisions to remove politicians and other users from the social-media platforms. The law placed restrictions on the companies and threatened penalties, but it also included an exemption shielding theme-park operators from the restrictions — an exemption designed to help Disney.

But during a special legislative session last week, lawmakers eliminated the theme-park exemption. That move, along with passage of another bill aimed at dissolving a special taxing district that benefits Disney, came after the entertainment giant clashed with Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican lawmakers about new state prohibitions on teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation in public schools.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle last year blocked the social-media law on First Amendment grounds, and a panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear the state’s appeal Thursday. In a filing Friday, an attorney for the state said the legislation eliminating the theme-park exemption (SB 6-C) removes that issue from the case.

“Since Florida has repealed the theme park exemption, plaintiffs’ arguments related to that provision of the act are moot,” the filing said.

But in a response filed Tuesday, an attorney for tech-industry groups that challenged the 2021 law (SB 7072) pointed to the First Amendment issues in the case, saying that “repealing the arbitrary carveout for theme parks does not cure the viewpoint discrimination that permeates SB 7072; it doubles down on it.”

“The retaliatory elimination of the Disney carveout underscores the state’s problematic intent, but does nothing to eliminate the broader problems with SB 7072, which continues to single out large social media platforms in an effort to target the perceived viewpoint of ‘Big Tech,’ while interfering with editorial discretion, compelling speech and discriminating on the basis of content and speaker,” said the filing on behalf of the industry groups NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association.

DeSantis led efforts last year to pass the social-media crackdown after Twitter and Facebook blocked former President Donald Trump from their platforms after Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

With DeSantis and Republican lawmakers accusing large social-media companies of censorship, the law sought to prevent the platforms from banning political candidates from their sites and to require companies to publish — and apply consistently — standards about issues such as banning users or blocking their content.

Companies could face penalties for violating restrictions in the law. For example, companies that remove political candidates from platforms could face fines of $250,000 a day for statewide candidates and $25,000 a day for other candidates.

But Hinkle in June issued a preliminary injunction against the law, calling it “riddled with imprecision and ambiguity.”

“The legislation now at issue was an effort to rein in social-media providers deemed too large and too liberal,” Hinkle wrote. “Balancing the exchange of ideas among private speakers is not a legitimate government interest.”

As part of the order, Hinkle took issue with the exemption for theme parks, saying the law “discriminates on its face among otherwise-identical speakers: between social-media providers that do or do not meet the legislation’s size requirements and are not under common ownership with a theme park.”

In a proclamation that added the theme-park exemption issue to last week’s special legislative session, DeSantis cited Hinkle’s ruling. In part, the proclamation said the exemption was “unnecessary to effectuate the law regulating social media platforms, and … the Legislature should make clear that Florida intends to continue to protect consumers from the arbitrary and inconsistent censorship of social media platforms in a viewpoint-neutral manner.”

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