Republican leaders in Texas are “taking a stand” and supporting a popular conservative cause by pushing legislation to prohibit social media platforms from “political censorship,” Gov. Greg Abbott said Friday during a news conference.
Other states are considering similar legislation, but Democrats and many legal experts are questioning whether those bills run counter to existing federal law.
Abbott and state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, met in Tyler to discuss Senate Bill 12, which would “help prohibit social media companies from censoring Texans based on the viewpoints they express,” according to an Abbott press release.
“The United States of America was built on freedom of speech and healthy public debate,” Abbott said Friday. “Big tech’s efforts to silence conservative viewpoints is un-American, it’s un-Texan and it is unacceptable.
“And soon enough, it’s going to be against the law in the state of Texas,” he added.
I am joining @SenBryanHughes to announce a bill prohibiting social media companies from censoring viewpoints.
Too many social media sites silence conservative speech and ideas and trample free speech.
It’s un-American, Un-Texan, & soon to be illegal.https://t.co/zSdirRa1pj
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) March 5, 2021
The bill would also allow Texans whose accounts are restricted to file lawsuits against social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook.
While several states have filed similar legislation, many lawyers are poking holes in the bills, citing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
The CDA states that no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable for “any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.”
“Before even reaching the free speech issue, a lawsuit filed under the FL or TX social media bills would be dismissed as preempted by Section 230 of the CDA,” Max Kennerly, a trial lawyer, said in a tweet. “And if it did reach free speech, it’d lose; social media companies can choose what content they allow.”
Before even reaching the free speech issue, a lawsuit filed under the FL or TX social media bills would be dismissed as preempted by Section 230 of the CDA.
(And if it did reach free speech, it’d lose; social media companies can choose what content they allow.) pic.twitter.com/6as5wGdNww
— Max Kennerly (@MaxKennerly) March 5, 2021
Hughes said they are aiming at protecting political speech, not lascivious, obscene or lewd language.
“You still can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,’” Hughes said. “But your political speech, your religious speech, your opinions, sharing news — that’s your fundamental American and Texas right. That’s what this bill does.”
Abbott thanked Hughes later Friday in a press release, in which he also called social media sites our “modern day public squares” where information should flow freely and accused social media companies of acting as a “judge and jury.”
Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement that this is Abbott and his allies’ attempt to “distract from the fact that Texans are dead because of his catastrophic failure in leadership” throughout the pandemic.
“Instead of holding a press conference honoring Texans who lost their lives and supporting their families, or working with state and local leaders to stop the spread of COVID-19, he is wasting energy and time on social media policies,” Hinojosa said. “It’s clear that his priorities are not in line with the most pressing needs of the residents of the great state of Texas.”
If passed, Senate Bill 12 would apply to users who reside, do business, or receive expressions in the state. As defined in the bill, expression means any word, music, sound, still or moving image, number or other perceivable communication. Computer services would have some ability to censor users in the state, though only if behavior is considered unlawful.
Abbott and Hughes’ news conference comes nearly two months after Twitter announced its decision to permanently suspend then-President Donald Trump after assessing two of his tweets following the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C.
In one tweet, he said his supporters, or “great American Patriots,” as he phrased it, “will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future.” In another tweet, Trump stated that he would not be in attendance on Inauguration Day, which some said made the Jan. 20 event the next target of attack.
After completing an analysis, Twitter determined that the two tweets were likely to “inspire others to replicate the violent acts” from Jan. 6 and noted that there were “multiple indicators” that the tweets were being received as encouragement to do so.
Since Trump’s Twitter account was suspended Jan. 8, several states across the country have considered similar legislation to prohibit social media platforms from “censoring” users based on “viewpoints they express.”
Senate Bill 12 comes after a similar effort from Hughes in 2019, when he supported Senate Bill 2373, which would have allowed the state attorney general to take legal action against social media platforms over censorship allegations.
After passing through the Senate, the 2019 bill was left pending in House committee.