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Hawley assaults free speech with misguided bill aimed at political bias in big tech

Hawley speech paints bleak picture of America in crisis

The America that Josh Hawley described in his first major Senate floor speech Wednesday is a bleak place where working people suffer from an “epidemic of loneliness and despair” so profound that record numbers have been driven to suicide.
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The America that Josh Hawley described in his first major Senate floor speech Wednesday is a bleak place where working people suffer from an “epidemic of loneliness and despair” so profound that record numbers have been driven to suicide.

Sen. Josh Hawley’s dangerous assault on the First Amendment has escalated. Missourians who value free speech and free thought must make their views known, quickly.

Under current law, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter — or the blogger down the street — can’t be held legally responsible for most of the digital content that users post on their sites. The law, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, has helped the internet flourish as a place for free debate and discussion.

Hawley isn’t interested in any of that, it appears. He’s proposed a bill to revoke Section 230 protections for any big digital company that fails a government review of its practices and decisions.

“Tech companies get a sweetheart deal that no other industry enjoys: complete exemption from traditional publisher liability, in exchange for providing a forum free of political censorship,” Hawley said in a statement.

He’s simply wrong. Section 230 does not say protected companies must provide viewpoint-neutral public forums. Nor could it: The First Amendment protects citizens from being forced to repeat things with which they disagree.

“The Free Speech Clause prohibits ... governmental abridgment of speech,” the Supreme Court said just this week. “The Free Speech Clause does not prohibit private abridgment of speech.”

There are other concerns. Under Hawley’s bill, big tech firms would have to show the Federal Trade Commission “clear and convincing evidence” that they have not discriminated against political parties, candidates and viewpoints. It isn’t clear, though, how the FTC would decide what discrimination looks like.

“It’s dangerous to give a government agency the impossible task of enforcing political neutrality on platforms,” said a statement from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital free speech advocacy group.

Critics said Wednesday the bill might force tech companies to take down all political speech, for fear of offending the government — or leave everything online, including hateful, bigoted speech and images. Both approaches are wrong-headed and scary.

The Hawley measure is such a threat to free speech and free thought that both conservative and liberal groups are condemning it.

“Sen. Hawley’s misguided legislation sets the table for stricter government control over free expression online,” the conservative group Americans for Prosperity said of the Republican senator’s bill. The government, the group said, would have the ability “to police your speech and determine what you can or cannot say.”

It’s clear Missouri’s senator wants to make regulation of big technology companies a top priority. Yes, Facebook, Google and Twitter may be too big, and government oversight of their business models, including anti-trust enforcement, may be needed.

But arguing over the firms’ free speech rights, or holding them hostage, is a counterproductive distraction from that effort.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time Hawley has waged war on the Constitution. Just a few weeks ago, he opposed a federal judge nominee on faith and speech grounds, establishing a religious test for judicial confirmation. That, too, is offensive.

“A shortsighted faction on the right has unwittingly argued itself into a scorched-earth litmus test unrelated to judicial philosophy,” a columnist wrote in the Federalist.

Let us state plainly what Hawley does not understand: The First Amendment protects the right to speak and worship as one pleases. It prohibits the government from interfering with those rights.

Missourians and all Americans who respect those rights, should tell Sen. Hawley. His phone number is 202-224-6154.

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