Federal judge blocks Arkansas’ Social Media Safety Act; likely violates First Amendment

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 998 views 

An Arkansas law requiring an age-verification process before minors could access social media sites has been blocked by U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Brooks. The law, the Social Media Safety Act (Act 689), was set to become law on Friday (Sept. 1).

The law, passed as SB 396 with overwhelming support from Republicans in the Arkansas Legislature during the recent legislative session, was signed into law by Gov. Sarah Sanders. Sponsors and supporters said the law was needed to protect minors from the dangers of social media, including Facebook and Instagram. The law also required an age-verification process that included presentation of documents.

The bill was opposed by social media lobbyists and some legislators who said it is a form of censorship and would violate free speech rights. Bill sponsors Sen. Tyler Dees, R-Siloam Springs, pushed back against such claims during the floor debate.

“This does not ban social media. This is not a First Amendment issue, we are not censoring any sort of free speech at all. All this does is apply the same logic that we do in a society… the same logic that we think protects kids, and applies it to an online situation,” Dees said.

NetChoice, a social media association with members that include Amazon, Google, TikTok, and StubHub, filed a lawsuit to block the law. NetChoice argued that Act 689’s age-verification processes are burdensome and do nothing to prevent or reduce the harms minors may face through social media.

In granting a temporary injunction, Judge Brooks, with the Western District of Arkansas, rejected claims by attorneys from the office of Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin that the law is specifically tailored to block minors from social media harm, and that the age-verification process is easy and commonly used in other markets. Brooks also said Act 689 “contains terms too vague to be reasonably understood,” and “further research is necessary before the State may begin to construct a regulation that is narrowly tailored to address the harms that minors face due to prolonged use of certain social media.”

“In sum, NetChoice is likely to succeed on the merits of the First Amendment claim it raises on behalf of Arkansas users of member platforms. The State’s solution to the very real problems associated with minors’ time spent online and access to harmful content on social media is not narrowly tailored. Act 689 is likely to unduly burden adult and minor access to constitutionally protected speech. If the legislature’s goal in passing Act 689 was to protect minors from materials or interactions that could harm them online, there is no compelling evidence that the Act will be effective in achieving those goals,” Brooks noted in his 50-page opinion. (Link here for a PDF of the ruling.)

“I am disappointed in the ruling, but I will continue to vigorously defend the law and protect our children, an important interest recognized in the federal judge’s order today,” noted a statement from Griffin.

Chris Marchese, director of the NetChoice Litigation Center, praised the decision.

“We’re pleased the court sided with the First Amendment and stopped Arkansas’ unconstitutional law from censoring free speech online and undermining the privacy of Arkansans, their families and their businesses as our case proceeds. We look forward to seeing the law struck down permanently,” he said in a statement.