Elon Musk’s X Corp, formerly known as Twitter, is making headlines once again, this time by filing a lawsuit against the State of California. The lawsuit challenges Assembly Bill 587, a recently enacted law aimed at enhancing transparency measures for social media companies. This legal battle has ignited a contentious debate surrounding the delicate balance between free speech and the regulation of online hate speech and misinformation.
The legislation at the heart of the dispute imposes new requirements on social media companies with annual revenue exceeding $100 million. They are now obligated to issue semiannual reports detailing their content moderation policies and provide users with copies of their terms of service. Failure to comply with these regulations could result in civil fines of up to $15,000 per violation per day.
X Corp’s objections to Assembly Bill 587 are based on constitutional grounds. In their formal complaint filed in a federal court in Sacramento, the company contends that the law infringes on its constitutional rights to free speech under both the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the California State Constitution. X Corp further asserts that the law’s “true intent” is to pressure social media platforms into censoring content that the state deems objectionable, effectively constituting “a form of compelled speech.”
It’s worth noting that this lawsuit comes almost a year after Elon Musk, the world’s wealthiest individual and a self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist,” acquired Twitter for a staggering $44 billion. Following the acquisition, Musk made significant changes to the platform, including the dismissal of several employees responsible for content moderation. Additionally, he reinstated some accounts that had previously been banned.
These actions had an unintended consequence: a notable surge in hate speech on the platform, targeting various communities, including Jews, Black people, gay men, and transgender individuals, as reported by organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the Center for Countering Digital Hate.
In response to these developments, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 587 into law last September, emphasizing the state’s determination not to allow social media to be used as a tool for spreading hate and disinformation. The office of California Attorney General Rob Bonta, responsible for enforcing state laws, has confirmed that it will actively address the lawsuit in court.
Against the backdrop of this legal battle, Elon Musk has pointed fingers at critics, including the Anti-Defamation League, claiming they are responsible for a 60% decline in U.S. advertising revenue on the X platform. A.J. Brown, the former head of brand safety and ad quality at X, recently revealed that changes aimed at limiting the visibility of objectionable content, rather than outright removal, have made it challenging to reassure advertisers about the platform’s safety.
Meanwhile, on the national stage, the Biden administration has found itself embroiled in its own First Amendment controversy. The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that the White House and other government agencies “likely violated the First Amendment” by significantly encouraging social media platforms to moderate content related to COVID-19. This decision has narrowed the scope of an earlier district court order and raises concerns about government involvement in content moderation on online platforms.
As both federal and state authorities grapple with the complexities of free speech and content moderation, X Corp’s lawsuit against California’s Assembly Bill 587 has become a pivotal moment in the ongoing debate. It forces us to confront important questions about the extent of government control over social media companies and the delicate balance between free expression and the responsibility to combat hate and misinformation online.