In a case closely watched for its potential implications for social media, the Supreme Court has ruled that a nonprofit running public access channels isn’t bound by governmental constraints on speech.
The case, which the conservative wing of the court decided in a split 5–4 ruling, centered around a Manhattan-based nonprofit tasked by New York City with operating public access channels in the area. The organization disciplined two producers after a film led to complaints, which the producers argued was a violation of their First Amendment speech rights. The case turned on whether the nonprofit was a “state actor” running a platform governed by First Amendment constraints.
In a decision written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the conservative justices ruled that the First Amendment constraints didn’t apply to the nonprofit, which they considered a private entity. Providing a forum for speech wasn’t enough to become a government actor, the justices ruled.
Nowhere is the internet or social media discussed in the ruling, but the idea that the decision could be used to penalize social media companies was raised by groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The groups argued that too broad of a decision could prevent other private entities like YouTube and Twitter from managing their platforms by imposing new constraints them. The Internet Association, a trade group, said last year that such a decision could mean the internet “will become less attractive, less safe and less welcoming to the average user.” But today’s decision seems to assuage those concerns.
The liberal justices on the court, in a dissenting ruling, argued instead that the terms under which the nonprofit ran the channels for the city should have bound it to First Amendment constraints. The nonprofit, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, “stepped into the City’s shoes and thus qualifies as a state actor, subject to the First Amendment like any other.”