Judge Blocks Arkansas Law that Would Have Placed Unconstitutional Age-Verification and Parental Consent Requirements on Social Media Users

The victory supports challenges to laws that stifle the free speech rights of minors and adults.

Affiliate: ACLU of Arkansas
September 1, 2023 11:16 am

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — In a win for free speech rights online, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas-Fayetteville Division blocked Arkansas’ unconstitutional Social Media Safety Act from going into effect today. The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Arkansas, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed an amicus brief in support of a challenge to the law, also known as Arkansas’ Act 689. The law will remain blocked while the case, NetChoice v. Griffin, moves forward.

Previously, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed the Social Media Safety Act into law in April 2023. The law would have required users to provide personal information, such as a driver’s license or photo ID, to companies or applications that purport to be able to verify their ages. As written, the law would have stifled freedom of expression online by requiring all users, including adults, to verify their ages before using existing social media accounts or opening new ones. It also would have required any users who are minors to obtain explicit parental consent for social media usage.

“The law was blocked by the court based on rights violations raised to the legislature before the bill was passed,” said Holly Dickson, executive director of ACLU of Arkansas. “It would have created a false sense of security around protecting children. The decision is welcome protection for Arkansans’ free speech, privacy, liberty, and security.”

Individuals of all ages rely on social media for political speech, artistic expression, advocacy, access to the news, and more. Imposing unconstitutional age-verification requirements burdens users who may want to engage in anonymous speech, who do not have government ID, and who are otherwise concerned about their privacy and security. The law’s parental consent requirement would also impermissibly burden the First Amendment rights of young people, who are often at the forefront of movements, trends, and technologies.

“The court rightly recognized that this law — which treated the entirety of social media like a bar or casino — unconstitutionally burdened the free speech rights of young people and adults alike. Like too many bills around the country, it was a scattershot attempt to ‘protect the children’ without a clear connection to actually achieving that goal,” said Vera Eidelman, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, & Technology Project. “We hope this decision will be a lesson for legislators around the country considering similar bills.”

Lawmakers claimed this legislation was aimed at giving parents more control over their kids’ social media usage and protecting teens from the harm social media may impose on young adults’ mental health. However, as written, this law not only fails to protect children, it also unfairly burdens users who care about anonymity, privacy, and security online, and may put users’ personal data at risk.

For decades the courts have struck down similar laws and attempts at age verification passed in the name of protecting kids online. Where less restrictive alternatives exist, the government cannot impose age verification on adults in the name of protecting kids. The same is true of requiring parental consent for kids’ social media use, since parents may have authority over their own kids, but the government cannot impose its view of what parents ought to want on all families. The ACLU is actively fighting similar attempts to burden free speech and free expression online at both the state and federal levels.

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