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Get the latest coverage of the 2024 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

A conversation about Florida's social bill and teens' free speech

A man holds an iPhone 12 with the social media tab open on the screen.
Geo Gauvin

One of the most controversial bills to come out of this year’s legislative session restricts the use of social media sites for teenagers. We examine the constitutionality the bill, and potential lawsuits that could follow.

The bill [HB 3] had bipartisan support, but there are questions about whether it violates the First Amendment rights of these young people. And it’s not clear which social media platforms will be affected. Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed an earlier version of the bill.

Florida Matters host Matthew Peddie spoke with Lawrence Mower of the Tampa Bay Times - Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau and political journalist William March to talk about what’s likely to happen next with this bill.

Read the transcript below or listen to the conversation using the audio player.

William, talk us through the social media restrictions bill. House Speaker Paul Renner made it a priority at the start of the session. What did lawmakers end up passing?

Well, they passed a weakened version after Governor Ron DeSantis expressed concern about the constitutionality of the bill, as well he might. What they actually passed would do a couple of things: kids 13 and under can't have accounts; (for) 14 to 16 (year-olds), parents have to provide permission. And for adult sites, it's 18. Plus, on our laws, very much alike that have been subject to challenges, several of them successful, at least so far in a couple of other states. And they're being sued by an organization called NetChoice, which is sort of a conglomeration of some of the biggest social media sites: Tiktok, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and NetChoice has pretty much signaled that they will file litigation over this law also.

Lawrence, I want to ask about some of the pushback to the bill, because Governor Ron DeSantis was among those voicing his opposition, he vetoed the first version of it. So that was a revamped version that reached his desk late last week. What does this conflict between the Republican Speaker and DeSantis tell you about the governor's hold on the legislature this session?

It was kind of interesting. This was basically a situation in which the social media bill kind of ran afoul of the governor and legislature's parental rights movement. Basically, the previous version of the bill just said anyone under 16 can't be on these social media sites. And the governor said, well, you know, I think parents should have a say in this, and the speaker said no, this would be a poison pill, we're not going to allow parents to basically opt in or kind of allow their kids to use social media. And when the governor basically said, essentially, I'm gonna veto unless you do this, and this new arrangement, the new bill, was basically kind of a way for both the speaker and the governor to save face. And, you know, we did see signs this session, other signs of the legislature kind of growing out of DeSantis's shadow, so to speak. These are still a house speaker and senate president who were very much in lockstep with the governor. But one of the things that I thought was interesting, and other people thought was interesting in the budget, is the governor has all these initiatives, like new College of Florida, that he's just throwing millions and millions of dollars at the state guard is another thing that he's asking for a ton of money on that. And what the legislature has said this year in the budget is that, well, we'll give you some of this money. But we're going to now start requiring reports from you guys about how you're actually spending this money, how you're actually enacting the legislation that we're passing each year, which is new. I mean, they only do this in situations where they there's a big question about how this money is being spent. And with DeSantis, his administration is extremely secretive about how they spend their money. You know, it's hard to even get public records from them on this stuff. And the legislature, they've been kind of annoyed with this. They've been caught flat-footed. The legislature basically assigns how the money is spent, and DeSantis and state agencies are the ones who are actually supposed to carry it out. And the legislature has been kind of annoyed with how the governor has been basically spending this money or in many cases, not spending it. There's a lot of money that they've assigned, for like DeSantis' migrant relocation program. Just hasn't been spent.

Lawrence, when you think about the social media bill, what are some of the objections you've been hearing to it? And what's likely to happen next? I mean, there have been similar bills, as we've talked about in other states. What does that tell you about what might happen with Florida's attempt to crack down on social media use by kids?

What we're gonna see almost certainly is a lawsuit challenging this in federal court on multiple grounds. One, that it's unconstitutional. Basically, what social media companies will say is that — and free speech advocates too — will say that this tramples on the free speech rights of kids who should have access to websites that provide information. The Supreme Court and federal judges for decades have basically said that kids have a right to free speech, and that if the government wants to limit kids' access to speech, it needs to be very narrowly tailored. You need to limit very specific things. You can't just have a blanket ban on websites, for example. That's one thing. Another thing that judges have found in these other states is that these bans are unconstitutionally vague. Legislators wouldn't even say this session, which websites would actually be banned here. The ban applies to websites and platforms that have so-called addicting features. Bsically anything from push alerts to auto-playing videos. Which websites does this apply to? If social media companies can't figure it out, which is what they have argued, and judges have agreed so far in other states, then it's unconstitutionally vague. And then you get to the basic premise of this legislation, which is, everybody seems to agree that the motivations behind the social media ban are good, which is House Speaker Paul Renner, and other legislators said that the social media sites are a mortal threat to kids. Since social media has been really popular, there is a rise in teen anxiety and depression. However, the science on social media addiction is really far from settled. In fact, it's not a recognized addiction. And the data around it is not strong. It's not a strong correlation. And so what a lot of people are expecting is that this point itself will be argued in federal court, potentially in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, which I think it would be realistic to say, but probably address all these states' concerns in one fell swoop.

William, although there is some vagueness kind of written into this legislation about which social media sites may be in the crosshairs here, TikTok is one that that lawmakers have focused on. And that's something we've mentioned. So do you see that as maybe a site that could be a test case for how this law is applied?

Well, certainly it is. TikTok is obviously one of the more popular social media sites for young people. It's also cited as one of the most addictive. Legislators in Florida said that they didn't want to name specific sites, that what they wanted to do was regulate conduct rather than specific sites. And in part they did that because they thought it might make the law less vulnerable to challenge. But that is probably not going to work out. Just last month, a federal judge in Ohio blocked a law similar to Florida's from going into effect. And they've also won similar lawsuits that the social media companies have in a couple of other states, including California, where just like in Florida, the law is intended to regulate the design of the platform and the conduct of the company rather than naming specific sites. The Florida law has another issue that requires age verification, but it doesn't say specifically how that's going to be done. And this was one of Governor Ron DeSantis's arguments against it along with his parental rights idea. One of his arguments against it was that this attacks the fundamental right to anonymous comment in public that he says people should have. So I think we're going to see a lawsuit against this law by all of these groups together under the under the banner of this NetChoice organization. And probably that's what will happen first before any one specific company gets into the state's crosshairs.

Lawrence, one thing that I found interesting about this bill was it did have bipartisan support in some regards, and you have the likes of Democratic state representative Michele Rayner, from St. Petersburg, talking about the need to hold social media companies accountable and not punish parents. I wonder what you make of that?

Yeah, it did pass with bipartisan support in both chambers. It just speaks to the issue of people looking for a solution to this issue of teen depression and anxiety. By the way, adults have higher rates of depression and anxiety, or the rate has gone up greater for them than it has for teens. Legislators want to do something about this, and they're frustrated by inaction in Washington about it. We saw similar motivations, and, again, we're talking about California and Arkansas in these kinds of bans. You're talking about opposites of the political spectrum here. But there's just this desire to do something about this. Now, is this the right way? I mean, we'll find out. The legislature admitted basically that we expect to get a challenge and that we might be back tweaking this next year.

Besides the free speech element, it strikes me that social media companies and others might make an argument that there are some positives from these social media platforms, right? I mean, we saw it during the the start of the pandemic in 2020. In many ways, this was the only way some people could stay connected to their communities was online. So I imagine some of that's been discussed in the legislature and will be discussed more as we kind of move forward with this.

They've admitted that there are positive aspects to social media. And that's one of the reasons why it might be found unconstitutional. Judges have said you can't just have a blanket ban on kids from having access to this information. If there's harmful information on social media for kids, OK. Try to narrowly tailor it to that, maybe, but the way this is worded, there are constitutional questions. There's two parts of it. There's the aspect dealing with kids and social media. There's also adult websites that bans (people under 18) from adult websites. And in that case, that really does raise constitutional concerns. Not necessarily because of that, but because it requires every adult who wants to get access to a social media site to have some kind of strict age verification. Meaning it could be a facial scan, you might have to present some kind of government ID to go on these websites. And the Supreme Court has struck down such bans surrounding age verification like that. Because again, there's no anonymity in that, they say. Now, what the legislature said is that we think that technology relating to age verification is such that it can ensure anonymity. Whether that is true, I don't know. The technology seems very, very, very new. And considering what we know about data breaches and whatnot, there's real questions around that. But as (Speaker Renner) said, he invites a legal challenge to that provision.

I am the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show Florida Matters, where I get to indulge my curiosity in people and explore the endlessly fascinating stories that connect this community.