Wednesday, October 17, 2018
Supreme Court could rule on Internet censorship
(CNBC) - The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that could determine whether users can challenge social media companies on free speech grounds.
The case, Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck, No. 17-702, centers on whether a private operator of a public access television network is considered a state actor, which can be sued for First Amendment violations.
The case could have broader implications for social media and other media outlets. In particular, a broad ruling from the high court could open the country's largest technology companies up to First Amendment lawsuits.
That could shape the ability of companies like Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet's Google to control the content on their platforms as lawmakers clamor for more regulation and activists on the left and right spar over issues related to censorship and harassment.
The Supreme Court accepted the case on Friday. It is the first case taken by a reconstituted high court after Justice Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation earlier this month.
On its face, the case has nothing to do with social media at all. Rather, the facts of the case concern public access television, and two producers who claim they were punished for expressing their political views. The producers, DeeDee Halleck and Jesus Melendez, say that Manhattan Neighborhood Network suspended them for expressing views that were critical of the network.
In making the argument to the justices that the case was worthy of review, attorneys for MNN said the court could use the case to resolve a lingering dispute over the power of social media companies to regulate the content on their platforms.
While the First Amendment is meant to protect citizens against government attempts to limit speech, there are certain situations in which private companies can be subject to First Amendment liability. Attorneys for MNN have made the case that social media companies are clearly not government actors. But in raising the question, they have provided the Supreme Court an opportunity to weigh in.
"We stand at a moment when the very issue at the heart of this case—the interplay between private entities, nontraditional media, and the First Amendment—has been playing out in the courts, in other branches of government, and in the media itself," attorneys for MNN wrote in their final plea to the justices to take up the case.
A ruling against MNN on the broad question it has asked the court to consider could open social media companies to First Amendment suits, which would force them to limit the actions they take to control the content on their platforms.
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