The Law and Business of Social Media
February 14, 2024 - Advertising, Compliance, Free Speech, Privacy, Social Media Policy

Court Prohibits Ohio’s AG From Enforcing Social Media Parental Notification Act

A court in the Southern District of Ohio has issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the Social Media Parental Notification Act, an Ohio law that would require social media platforms to obtain parental consent for users under 16. NetChoice LLC, an industry group whose membership includes a number of large social media companies, challenged the legislation on behalf of its members and their users.

The Act would impose age verification measures on social media platforms and require parental consent for users under the age of 16. The Ohio law applies specifically to platforms that target children or are likely to be accessed by children, which is determined based on the following factors:

(1) Subject matter;

(2) Language;

(3) Design elements;

(4) Visual content;

(5) Use of animated characters or child-oriented activities and incentives;

(6) Music or other audio content;

(7) Age of models;

(8) Presence of child celebrities or celebrities who appeal to children;

(9) Advertisements;

(10) Empirical evidence regarding audience composition; and

(11) Evidence regarding the intended audience.

Additionally, the Act makes exceptions for product review sites and “established and widely recognized” news sites with commenting functionality. Penalties for non-compliance include fines of (i) up to $1000 per day for the first 60 days of noncompliance; (ii) up to an additional $5000 per day for days 61–90; and (iii) up to an additional $10,000 per day for days 91 and beyond. While aimed at protecting minors online, the legislation raises serious concerns about free speech, vagueness, and compliance burdens on digital platforms.

NetChoice, a trade association representing online businesses, filed a motion for a preliminary injunction against Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, arguing that the Act violates the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of both NetChoice’s members and their users. NetChoice contended that the law unduly restricts freedom of expression and the right to access information on the internet. Moreover, NetChoice argued that the law is vague and would cause some companies to needlessly spend large amounts of money to comply with a law which may not even apply to them.

The court first determined that NetChoice had standing to bring claims on behalf of both itself and its members, based on economic harms to its members as well as constitutional harms, such as the chilling effect on free speech if the court did not hear NetChoice’s claims. Next, the court scrutinized the Act through the lens of both the First and Fourteenth Amendments, considering its implications for free speech and the potential harm it posed to social media platforms and their users.

1. Strict Scrutiny and Content Based Restrictions: The court determined that the Act was subject to strict scrutiny, the highest standard of review, because it is “content based.” Strict scrutiny requires the government to show that a law uses a narrowly tailored approach to serve a compelling government interest. The Attorney General argued that, by applying to sites that “target children” or are “reasonably anticipated to be accessed by children,” the Ohio law was simply tailoring its application to platforms that pose a risk to minors’ privacy, health, and safety rather than targeting any particular content. The court held, however, that provisions of the law that applied to sites with certain features were inherently content based, since they conveyed a message about the community that the site intended to curate and foster. Moreover, the court pointed to the exceptions for “established” news sites and product review sites as obviously content based (as an example, the court asked why the law didn’t also include exceptions for book and film review sites). Therefore, the court determined that the Act selectively regulates speech and is subject to strict scrutiny review.

2. Vagueness and Overbreadth: The court found the Act’s vagueness and broad application potentially chilled free speech, with unclear compliance requirements for platforms. For example, the Attorney General argued that the Ohio law is concerned with protecting minors from entering into terms of service that permit use of their personal data. The court noted, however, that the law is both overbroad because it completely blocks minors from these sites absent parental consent, and also underinclusive because it allows that “a child can still agree to a contract with the New York Times without their parent’s consent, but not with Facebook.” The Attorney General also recited a litany of potential psychological and real-world harms to children from use of certain social media sites, to which the court replied that the law “is a breathtakingly blunt instrument for reducing social media’s harm to children.” With respect to vagueness issues under the Fourteenth Amendment, the court pointed to the law’s “eyebrow-raising exception” for “established” and “widely recognized” media outlets and concluded that “[s]uch capacious and subjective language practically invites arbitrary application of the law.”

3. Impact on Minors’ Rights: Highlighting the 2011 Supreme Court case, Brown v. Ent. Merchants Ass’n, which invalidated a California law prohibiting the sale of violent video games to minors, the court noted that the Ohio law does not enforce parental authority, as the Attorney General argued, but rather imposes governmental authority, subject to a parental veto. The court also made the converse point, that online platforms have a right to disseminate protected speech to both minors and adults.

4. Balance of Equities and the Public Interest: After concluding that NetChoice had shown a strong likelihood of success on the merits and likelihood of irreparable harm, the court considered the final two preliminary injunction factors, whether the injunction would harm others and whether the public interest would be served by the injunction, noting that these two factors “merge when the government is a party.” While the Attorney General contended that the public interest would be served by allowing the law to go into effect and protect minors, the court was convinced by NetChoice’s argument that “the State has no interest in enforcing laws that are unconstitutional.” Accordingly, the court granted the preliminary injunction.

This case is one of a number of recent and pending cases pitting legislative attempts to regulate social media platforms against the free speech rights and other constitutional rights of the platforms and their users. We will be following the case as it progresses, and will report back on any further developments.