Judge Blocks 'Troublingly Vague' Ohio Social Media Law

A federal judge in Ohio has issued an emergency restraining order blocking enforcement of a new state law that would have required some large tech platforms, including Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and YouTube, to ban minors under 16, without parental consent.

In a ruling issued late Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Algenon Marbley in the Southern District of Ohio wrote that the law is “troublingly vague,” and its prohibitions don't appear tailored to the goal of protecting minors from the potential harms of social media.

“It is unlikely that the government will be able to show that the act is narrowly tailored to any ends that it identifies,” Marbley wrote. “Foreclosing minors under sixteen from accessing all content on websites that the act purports to cover, absent affirmative parental consent, is a breathtakingly blunt instrument for reducing social media’s harm to children. The approach is an untargeted one, as parents must only give one-time approval for the creation of an account, and parents and platforms are otherwise not required to protect against any of the specific dangers that social media might pose.”

The Social Media Operators Act, which would have taken effect January 15, prohibits some but not all sites with social functionality from allowing minors to create accounts or access content, without parental permission.

The law generally applies to operators of sites with social features (such as allowing people to create profiles and interact with each other) and are aimed at minors under 16 or “reasonably anticipated” to be accessed by such users. The measure exempts ecommerce sites that allow people to post reviews, and “established and widely recognized” media outlets that report news.

The tech industry group NetChoice sued to block the law, arguing that it violates the First Amendment because it wrongly restricts minors' rights to express themselves and access others' speech, and only applies to certain social platforms.

In addition to finding that the law didn't appear narrowly tailored to its purpose, Marbley also wrote that several provisions were “troublingly vague,” including the one for established and widely recognized news outlets.

He described that exception as “eyebrow-raising,” writing that the statute “provides no guardrails or signposts for determining which media outlets are 'established' and 'widely recognized.'

“Such capacious and subjective language practically invites arbitrary application of the law,” he wrote.

Marbley has scheduled a further hearing for February 8, after which he is expected to decide whether to extend the block on enforcement.

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