Image: Unsplash+
Image: Unsplash+

Federal judges block children’s online safety laws in Texas and Arkansas

Hours before controversial child online safety laws were set to take effect in Texas and Arkansas, two federal judges granted preliminary injunctions temporarily blocking them.

The Arkansas law, known as the Social Media Safety Act, is broader and would prevent minors from creating accounts without parental permission on platforms earning more than $100 million a year. The tech industry trade group NetChoice, which represents Google, Meta and TikTok, among others, sued in June to block the law on the grounds that it is unconstitutional and would place an onerous burden on digital platforms.

The more narrow Texas law sought to restrict minors from accessing content that is meant for adults. It was opposed by free speech groups and adult performer industry groups.

The Arkansas and Texas courts’ decisions blocking “age gating” on the internet could have far broader implications as courts in other states, including California and Utah, litigate their own similar laws.

In Arkansas, U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks sided with NetChoice, saying Thursday in a 50-page ruling that the law is “not targeted to address the harms it has identified, 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.”

Brooks added that age–gating social media platforms does not seem to be “an effective approach when, in reality, it is the content on particular platforms that is driving the State’s true concerns.”

He also said that the law ignores experts’ views that “parental oversight is what is really needed to insulate children from potential harms that lurk on the internet.”

Civil libertarians hailed the decisions.

“The court rulings rest on a fundamental constitutional principle: the government does not get to be the referee in deciding which speech is out of bounds,” Cody Venzke, senior policy counsel for surveillance, privacy, and technology at the ACLU, said in an email.

He added that even in rare cases where speech is not constitutionally protected, the government does not “get to throw out the good along with the bad — and that protection of our speech applies to both adults and minors.”

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin released a statement Thursday expressing disappointment but did not say whether the state will appeal.

“I will continue to vigorously defend the law and protect our children, an important interest recognized in the federal judge’s order today,” the statement said.

NetChoice released a statement from Chris Marchese, its litigation director, saying the association is pleased the court “sided with the First Amendment.”

“If the law ultimately takes effect, Arkansans would only have access to a state-approved internet experience, and only after they hand over their private information,” Marchese continued. “That is an unlawful power grab, and that’s why NetChoice is trying to stop it.”

Texas has already passed a parental consent law similar to the one Brooks just blocked in Arkansas.

The more narrow Texas law seeking to stop minors from accessing adult content online was temporarily blocked Thursday by District Judge David Alan Ezra in a move that the Free Speech Coalition said in a press release will protect citizens from facing "a chilling effect on legally-protected speech.”

The temporary injunctions block the laws from taking effect until further adjudication. It is unclear whether both Arkansas and Texas intend to appeal.

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Suzanne Smalley

Suzanne Smalley

is a reporter covering privacy, disinformation and cybersecurity policy for The Record. She was previously a cybersecurity reporter at CyberScoop and Reuters. Earlier in her career Suzanne covered the Boston Police Department for the Boston Globe and two presidential campaign cycles for Newsweek. She lives in Washington with her husband and three children.