Recently introduced legislation would allow members of the American public to sue federal employees who violate their protections under the First Amendment.
The Censorship Accountability Act (H.R. 4848) would expand current law to allow Americans to bring lawsuits against federal executive branch employees for violating individuals’ First Amendment rights, including censoring views on social media.
The text of the legislation states:
A Federal employee who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of the United States, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or any person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the First Amendment, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.
The bill was introduced by Congressman Dan Bishop (R-NC). It has nine co-sponsors as of the time of this writing.
Bishop said in a statement:
Freedom of speech is the bedrock principle of our nation. Unfortunately, many malicious actors, especially federal bureaucrats, are bent on undermining the First Amendment and censoring Americans at every turn. Current law allows government agents to censor and suppress free speech with little recourse for those being silenced. My bill will change that by finally allowing Americans to sue federal employees who violate their First Amendment rights. The Censorship Industrial Complex should no longer be allowed to operate with impunity, and those who seek to destroy the freedom of speech should have to answer for it in a court of law.
Ongoing Court Case Inspires the Legislation
The legislation was introduced in response to the Missouri v. Biden court case. The case was filed by Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey and Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry against the Biden administration.
Plaintiffs in the case state that the Biden administration pressured social media companies to suppress information on certain topics, such as the Hunter Biden laptop story or COVID-19 health policies.
A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction on July 4, 2023, which barred several federal agencies from “threatening, pressuring, or coercing social-media companies in any manner to remove, delete, suppress, or reduce posted content of postings containing protected free speech.”
In his ruling, Judge Terry A. Doughty wrote:
The Plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits in establishing that the Government has used its power to silence the opposition. Opposition to COVID-19 vaccines; opposition to COVID-19 masking and lockdowns; opposition to the lab-leak theory of COVID-19; opposition to the validity of the 2020 election; opposition to President Biden’s policies; statements that the Hunter Biden laptop story was true; and opposition to policies of the government officials in power. All were suppressed. It is quite telling that each example or category of suppressed speech was conservative in nature. This targeted suppression of conservative ideas is a perfect example of viewpoint discrimination of political speech. American citizens have the right to engage in free debate about the significant issues affecting the country.
The government argued that the statements made by its officials were protected speech. However, Doughty wrote:
The Defendants argue that by making public statements, this is nothing but government speech. However, it was not the public statements that were the problem. It was the alleged use of government agencies and employees to coerce and/or significantly encourage social-media platforms to suppress free speech on those platforms.
The Biden administration has filed an appeal in the case. How the case will ultimately turn out remains to be seen, but Bishop’s legislation is an attempt to help settle at least some aspects of the free speech debate as to what federal government officials can and cannot do with respect to influencing information on social media.
Related Bills in Congress
Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act
A similar bill passed in the House earlier this year. The Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act (H.R. 140) was introduced by Congressman James Comer (R-KY) in response to some of the same complaints about the government using its power to restrict certain topics on social media.
The legislation 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.
However, instead of allowing federal employees who violate the terms of the legislation to be sued as the Censorship Accountability Act does, the Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act instead proposes fines and disciplinary action. The bill states that any federal employees 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.
Free Speech Protection Act
Legislation was just introduced in both the House and the Senate that would prohibit executive branch federal employees and contractors from using their positions to censor and otherwise attack speech protected by the First Amendment.
Federal employees who violate the bill’s terms would be subject to harsh penalties including being fired, suspended, or getting a reduction in pay grade. They also would face a minimum fine of $10,000, permanent revocation of any security clearances, and be ineligible for any annuities.