Bills moving through the Minnesota Legislature purport to protect free speech, but are actually a slippery slope to government control.
By Annette Meeks
A move is underway in several state capitols, including St. Paul, to allow government officials to punish private technology companies that object to your political views. In an effort to combat “discrimination” on social media platforms, these bills would give government more power while claiming to defend free speech.
SF 1253/HF 1739, titled “Online Content Discrimination Prohibited,” is rapidly moving through the Minnesota Legislature. It awaits consideration by the full Senate and a hearing before the House Judiciary committee. The legislation purports to prohibit “interactive computer services from discriminating against a user based on race, sex, political ideology, or religious beliefs either directly or using an algorithm.”
The really scary part is that the remedy for someone who believes their social media speech was discriminated against on the basis of their political ideology is to bring civil action — a lawsuit — against the social media company. The legislation empowers Minnesota’s attorney general to investigate perceived violations and for the state to benefit if awarded damages. It compels private entities, in this case social media platforms, to display content that violates their standards.
This is a slippery slope away from the principle that the heavy hand of government shouldn’t coerce anyone to express what they deem objectionable.
Historically, conservatives have been loath to empower the state with new, far-reaching powers regulating speech. Yet some on the right believe that they are being discriminated against by “tech giants” such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. They see their social media postings being edited, challenged or even denied service by some tech companies. These conservatives seek to force “Big Tech” to allow their speech to be heard on their platforms.
But it’s worth remembering that Facebook, Twitter and all of the rest aren’t the public square. They are private online platforms. Nor are they monopolies. If you don’t like the restrictions placed on what you want to say on a certain free online social media site, you are free to post your musings elsewhere.
Conservative icon Sen. Barry Goldwater defended limited free speech oversight by saying: “The utmost vigilance and care are required to keep political power in its proper bounds.” This legislation expands those bounds, allowing government to meddle in tech companies’ proprietary rights.
Over 30 years ago, another great conservative, former President Ronald Reagan, said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Reagan understood the perils of allowing government to decide who and what should be allowed to be disseminated through a public platform. His solution is still the right one: more speech, not more restrictions.
Conservative voices have proliferated in the public debate in the decades since the Reagan presidency, whether on traditional media like television, radio or newspapers, or via social media. You don’t have to look far to find a conservative cable news program, nor to find an enormous array of conservative websites.
Little of this viewpoint diversity existed before 1987 when then-President Reagan repealed the so-called “Fairness Doctrine,” a law requiring equal treatment of political parties by broadcasters. “This type of content-based regulation by the federal government,” Reagan said, is “antagonistic to the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment. In any other medium besides broadcasting, such federal policing … would be unthinkable.”
We can’t lose sight of the proliferation of all kinds of new political speech — left and right — inspired by repealing the Fairness Doctrine. The last thing we need is a return to the restrictive speech days with a new “fairness doctrine,” with guidelines developed and monitored by our attorney general.
We’ve seen the power of social media to help freedom fighters unite against repressive governments, whether in Hong Kong last year or in the Arab Spring 10 years ago. These very same tech giants allowed political dissidents to reach billions of people and to share their struggles against repressive regimes that don’t believe in free speech.
Those fighting for freedom around the world understand and appreciate what our Founding Fathers knew: All freedom begins with free speech.