The House passed legislation this week that would prohibit federal employees from using their authority or influence to censor any speech. It must now go before the Senate to advance further in the legislative process.
The Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act (H.R. 140) was introduced by Congressman James Comer (R-KY) who is also the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability.
The bill prohibits federal employees from pressuring social media companies to silence, censor, or remove Americans expressing their views online. It accomplishes this by expanding the Hatch Act to prohibit federal employees from censoring lawful speech.
Specifically, the legislation would prohibit federal employees from using their official authority or resources to influence or coerce a private sector platform to censor—including to remove, suppress, restrict, or add disclaimers or alerts to—any lawful speech posted on its platform by a person or entity. It provides an exception for legitimate law enforcement activities reported to Congress for review.
The legislation states that 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 10 years, suspension, or reprimand as well as a potential fine of up to $1,000 and up to $50,000 for senior government officials.
Comer said in a statement about the legislation:
The Biden Administration has eroded Americans’ First Amendment rights by bullying social media companies to censor certain views and news on their platforms. Biden Administration officials are quick to label inconvenient facts as disinformation and then pressure social media companies to suppress content on their platforms. To protect the First Amendment, the Protect Speech from Government Interference Act stops federal employees from pressuring social media companies to silence Americans expressing views online. The Senate must take up this legislation to get this bill to the finish line.
Congressman Jim Jordan (R-OH) added:
Federal government employees are paid with Americans’ tax dollars to serve the public, not to decide what information they want private parties to censor. The Twitter files, and other information that has come to light, show that this practice is rampant and there’s never been a more important time for Chairman Comer’s “Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act” to be adopted.
What is Behind the Legislation?
A press release issued at the time the Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act was introduced stated:
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.
The bill was introduced after the Twitter Files were released by Elon Musk after he took over Twitter. The Twitter Files provided details about what went on at the company amidst some of its more controversial actions.
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?”
What Does the Hatch Act Do?
The Hatch Act limits political activity of federal employees, and some state, District of Columbia, and local government employees who work in connection with federally funded programs.
The purpose of the law is to ensure federal programs are administered in a nonpartisan fashion, to protect federal employees from political coercion in the workplace, and to ensure federal employees are promoted based on merit instead of political affiliation or allegiance to a candidate or political party.
The most critical portions of the law are found in 5 U.S. Code § 7323 and § 7324. The Hatch Act means that a federal employee may not “use his official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election.”
The Hatch Act can apply to social media as well. Guidelines from the Office of Special Counsel stipulate situations in which it is and is not acceptable for federal employees to engage in political activity via social media.