Legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives that would prohibit federal employees from using their authority or influence to censor any speech, including by applying pressure to social media companies to censor speech on their platforms.
The legislation is known as the Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act (H.R. 140) and was introduced by Congressman James Comer (R-KY). He says that its purpose is to stop “Biden Administration officials and federal bureaucrats from using their authority or influence to promote censorship of speech or pressure social media companies to censor speech.”
The bill was introduced in the wake of the Twitter files released by Elon Musk after he took the helm at social media company. Reviews of these files by journalist Matt Taibbi showed, for instance, that Twitter officials were in direct communication with the FBI and other government agencies regarding regulating content on the platform. One official at the FBI compared the arrangement to the agency being the “belly button” of the direct communication link to the federal government with Twitter.
Correspondence coming from the government included requests from government officials to ban Twitter accounts of individuals they did not like. “They also received an astonishing variety of requests from officials asking for individuals they didn’t like to be banned,” wrote Taibbi.
Twitter officials initially balked but then complied with many requests, and they began to come pouring in from the government so fast that the company struggled to keep up with them. If Twitter did not respond quickly to incoming requests, the FBI would pressure the company with messages asking questions like, “Was action taken?” or “Any movement?”
A portion of a press release about the bill states:
Under the Biden Administration, federal officials have used their positions, influence, and resources to police and censor ordinary Americans’ speech expressed on social media platforms. For example, former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki used a July 2021 press briefing to call for Facebook to ban specific accounts from its platform and later in February 2022 called upon Spotify and other major tech platforms to limit what the Administration views as “mis- and dis-information.” Reports have also uncovered concerted government efforts to pressure Twitter and Facebook to go beyond their existing community rules to caveat certain posts and suspend users viewed as spreading misinformation. Most recently, Twitter has released information revealing government pressure to censor COVID information.
In a statement about the legislation, Comer said:
The Biden Administration has eroded Americans’ First Amendment rights by bullying social media companies to censor certain views and news on their platforms. From COVID-19 to the Biden family’s suspicious business schemes, Biden Administration officials are quick to label inconvenient facts as disinformation and then pressure social media companies to suppress content on their platforms. This threatens Americans’ First Amendment rights. To protect freedom of speech, our bill stops the federal government from pressuring social media companies to silence Americans expressing views online. I look forward to House leadership bringing this bill up for a vote soon so that we can hold the Biden Administration accountable for attacking Americans’ constitutional rights.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH), who is a co-sponsor of the bill, added, “The collusion between bureaucrats and Big Tech has gone on for far too long. Government agencies shouldn’t censor the free speech of Americans. The Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act is an important first step toward transparency and accountability for Biden’s bureaucrats and Big Tech.”
What the Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act Would Do
The Act spells out the situations under which a federal employee would be found to be censoring speech, and it also outlines what the penalties for violations would be if the bill were to become law.
As it is currently written, the text of the legislation states that a federal employee may not:
- Use his or her official authority or influence to advocate that any third party, including a private entity, take any action to censor any speech
- Knowingly censor or discourage the exercise of speech of any person who has an application for any compensation, grant, contract, ruling, license, permit, or certificate pending before the employing office of such employee or is the subject of or a participant in an ongoing audit, investigation, or enforcement action being carried out by the employing office of such employee
- Engage in censorship while on duty, in any room or building occupied in the discharge of official duties by an individual employed or holding office in the Government of the United States or any agency, while wearing a uniform or official insignia identifying his or her office or position, or while using any vehicle owned or leased by the Government of the United States or any agency
As far as penalties, the Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act states that any federal employees who were found to be in violation would be subject to disciplinary action consisting of removal, reduction in grade, debarment from Federal employment for a period not to exceed 5 years, suspension, or reprimand as well as a potential fine of up to $10,000.