Texas governor backs law to prohibit Facebook and Twitter from banning users
Texas governor Greg Abbott said Facebook and Twitter are leading a "dangerous movement to silence conservative voices and religious freedoms" as he backed a state bill Friday that would allow any Texans temporarily removed or banned from Facebook or Twitter to sue the social media companies in order to get reinstated.
The bill, introduced earlier this week by Republican state senators, is the latest of more than a dozen efforts that have emerged around the country in recent weeks, following the banning of former President Donald Trump from the two social media platforms in the wake of the January 6 Capitol riot.
At a press conference in Tyler, Texas, Abbott argued that the social media companies have the obligation under a 1996 federal law known as Section 230 to keep their platforms open, and that violations of that law by Facebook, Twitter and others give Texas the right to impose its own state-specific regulations.
"Big tech's efforts to censor conservative viewpoints is un-American, and we are not going to allow it in the Lone Star State," Abbott said.
Texas state Senator Bryan Hughes, who sponsored the bill and spoke along with Abbott, said that all the state wanted to do was protect the freedoms of its citizens. "We don't allow a cable company to cut off your television because of your religion," Hughes offered as a justification for the proposed law.
A spokesperson for Facebook did not return a request for comment by CBS MoneyWatch. In the past, Facebook and other social media companies have said they have the right to monitor and ban users on their platforms when those users post speech that promotes violence.
Many technology and media experts agree. Industry group TechNet in a statement said the Texas bill would lead to numerous unintended negative consequences, including exposing children to harmful content.
"Every day, millions of pieces of digital content are posted that show the exploitation of children, bullying, harassment, pornography and spam," TechNet said. "This bill not only recklessly encourages companies to leave objectionable content in the public eye, but also creates a culture that supports frivolous lawsuits against American companies."
Sharon Bradford Franklin, the policy director of think tank New America's Open Technology Institute, said Abbott "does not have a correct understanding" of federal regulations. She said, in fact, that Section 230 gives social media platforms, and all websites, the ability to decide what speech they want to host and what speech they want to take down.
While states can impose their own privacy laws on social media platforms, they are barred by federal law from enacting their own laws policing content on the platforms, Franklin added. "If a law needs to be changed, Texas can't do it on its own," she said. "I feel confident that any court would hold that a law passed by a state to regulate content on social media platforms is not allowed."
Conservatives have long claimed that they are censored on social media websites, even though there is little independent evidence to support that. A study released last month by New York University found no reliable backing for the contention that conservatives are regularly blacklisted on mainstream social media websites.
Nonetheless, conservative censorship complaints have grown louder since Facebook, Twitter and others have sought to limit calls for violence in the wake of the January 6 Capitol riot. This year alone, Republican law makers in 20 states have introduced bills that would allow their citizens to sue social media companies if they are "deplatformed," according to David Horowitz of the Media Coalition, a nonprofit focused on First Amendment issues.
While states are trying to make the case that Facebook should be regulated like a public square, in which all speech is protected, Horowitz believes those states will have a hard time passing that level of regulation on their own. The biggest hurdle: The internet operates across state lines. Any new regulations imposed on Facebook in one state, for instance, would impact the company in another. "There is no way for Texas to guarantee that its rules will govern just Texans," Horowitz said.
What's more, Horowitz said, courts have long upheld that business owners have their own First Amendment rights of free speech as well. "If a bookstore doesn't want to sell a book, the government can't force it to do so," said Horowitz. "I think social media platforms have the same rights."
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