March 3, 2024

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House Republicans pass bill to ban federal officials from pressuring tech platforms content

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House Republicans passed a bill on Thursday that seeks to ban federal officials from promoting censorship, a measure Republicans brought to the floor in response to what they say are efforts by the Biden administration to persuade social media companies to suppress certain information.

The measure, titled the Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act, passed in a party-line 219-206 vote.

The legislation specifically calls for prohibiting “federal employees from advocating for censorship of viewpoints in their official capacity,” which includes recommending that a third party should “take any action to censor speech.”

According to Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the lead sponsor of the measure, the bill would expand limitations under the Hatch Act to prohibit federal employees from encouraging censorship on private sector internet platforms.

Republicans accuse Democrats of pressuring social media companies to suppress content — including about Hunter Biden and the origins of COVID-19. They also point to platforms limiting the reach of or adding fact checks to posts containing misinformation about the 2020 election and the coronavirus pandemic.

When introducing the measure in January, the bill’s sponsors — Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Comer — cited what they said were instances when federal officials in the Biden administration “used their positions, influence, and resources to police and censor ordinary Americans’ speech expressed on social media platforms.”

On the House floor Wednesday, Comer — who chairs the Oversight and Reform Committee — pointed to the group’s hearing last month when lawmakers “learned just how easy it was for the federal government to influence a private company to accomplish what it constitutionally cannot: limit the free exercise of speech.”

At one point during the hearing, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) asked Yoel Roth, the former global head of trust and safety at Twitter, how many tweets were flagged and removed at the behest of the Biden administration.

Roth denied the characterization of the question, telling lawmakers that “tweets were reported and Twitter independently evaluated them under its rules.”

The hearing also featured references to the “Twitter Files,” reports by journalists that include internal communications between company employees and outside actors. David Zweig, who released one of the “Twitter Files” installments, said internal files from the company that he reviewed “showed that both the Trump and Biden administrations directly pressed Twitter executives to moderate the platform’s pandemic content according to their wishes.”

“It is inappropriate and dangerous for the federal government to decide what lawful speech is allowed on a private sector platform,” Comer said during debate on Wednesday.

“My bill, the Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act, makes this type of behavior an unlawful activity for federal officials to engage in — subjecting those who attempt to censor the lawful speech of Americans to disciplinary actions and monetary penalties,” he continued. “The federal government should not be able to decide what lawful speech is allowed — we have the First Amendment for a very good reason.”

Rep. Daniel Goldman (D-N.Y.) argued that the bill was unnecessary because of protections provided under the First Amendment.

“This bill purports to protect free speech from government censorship. And I agree, it’s a great idea. It’s such a good idea, in fact, that the Founding Fathers put it in the Constitution,”  Goldman said on the House floor Wednesday. “It’s called the First Amendment.”

“We don’t need a new bill to protect free speech because that is currently the law of the land. So we must ask ourselves: what is the point of this bill?” he added.

The congressman, who serves as lead counsel in former President Trump’s first impeachment inquiry, argued that the measure would allow malign actors to continue using social media “unfettered” or adverse reasons.

“H.R. 140 would effectively allow these and other foreign malign actors — who have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into online propaganda — to create chaos, mistrust, hate and confusion for Americans, to continue using social media platforms unfettered to wreak havoc on our democratic institutions, including the integrity of our elections,” Goldman said.

“It would do so by undermining the only defense that we have against these operations, which is the ability of our national security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to warn social media platforms and the public about the deployment of counterfeit accounts, disinformation and cyber surveillance by malign actors,” he added.

Lawmakers approved a number of amendments to the bill, including one that would prohibit law enforcement officials from sharing information with social media companies unless it pertains to speech not protected by the First Amendment — such as obscenity, fraud or incitement to imminent lawless action.

The measure also exempts actions from federal employees meant for “exercising legitimate law enforcement functions directly related to activities to combat child pornography, human trafficking, or the illegal transporting of or transacting in controlled substances and safeguarding, or preventing, the unlawful dissemination of properly classified national security information.”

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