A proposal to punish social media platforms for deleting content for political or religious reasons made its way to Utah this week, peddled by a controversial, anti-gay activist who says he’s lobbying states to quash online censorship.
Rep. Jon Hawkins presented the idea Wednesday to a legislative committee, citing Twitter’s attempts to contain the spread of the New York Post story on Hunter Biden as an example of online censorship. After a brief introduction to the panel, he yielded the floor to Chris Sevier, an attorney who once protested gay unions by claiming he’d married his laptop and is currently on a crusade to regulate social media companies.
“We really hope that you guys will enact this bill,” said Sevier, who was introduced as in-house counsel for a group called Special Forces of Liberty. “We think it will promote a lot of human flourishing and fairness.”
The legislation as described by Sevier would empower a social media user to sue if the platform deletes or suppresses one of their posts for political or religious reasons. The social media company could be on the hook for $75,000 in statutory damages, in addition to other forms of relief, he explained.
But several representatives of internet and tech companies spoke against the bill, which they said would place inappropriate restrictions on social media platforms and make it difficult to remove objectionable content. In a phone interview after the hearing ended, Hawkins said he’d decided not to move forward with the bill because his colleagues seemed concerned about it and because Sevier “doesn’t have the best reputation.”
“I don’t want to pick a loser right off the bat,” the Pleasant Grove Republican said of the censorship proposal. “And that’s what it would be with the kind of appetite I got from members of the interim committee.”
Hawkins said a Utah resident brought the drafted censorship bill to his attention and that he wasn’t aware of Sevier’s efforts to marry his computer until after the Judiciary Interim Committee hearing.
Several years ago, Sevier sued Alabama for recognition of his marriage to his MacBook and filed legal claims in Utah, among other states, to force a baker to make a wedding cake celebrating his union with the computer.
He also tried to advance anti-pornography legislation mandating internet filters that would cost $20 to deactivate and named the bill for Elizabeth Smart, who was was kidnapped from her Utah home when she was 14. In 2018, Smart sent a cease-and-desist letter to Sevier demanding that her name be removed from his proposal.
Last year, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that Sevier was pressing state lawmakers there to consider a social media censorship bill. A website for Sevier’s organization claims that 20 states are looking at the proposal, although a tech industry advocate disputed that assertion during Wednesday’s hearing.
Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel for NetChoice, a group that promotes free online expression, said the legislation would run afoul of the First Amendment, constrain social media moderators and go against free market principles cherished by conservatives.
“Not only is this an unnecessary bill, it comes with a panoply of unintended consequences,” said Szabo, who identified himself as a conservative. “And for that reason — and the same reason why every other state who’s considered this bill has not moved forward on it — we ask you not to advance this legislation."
On the other hand, Sevier argued his bill would protect free discourse while still leaving social media companies at liberty to purge their platforms of pornographic content, calls to violence and posts from fake accounts.
“The state of Utah has a compelling interest to protect the speech of people of all different religions,” he said, raising his voice as he spoke to lawmakers. “The other side doesn’t have a fundamental right to falsely induce people to sign up to use their platforms only to turn around to bully them and punish them because the employees of that company have a different world view.”
Debate over online censorship has reached a fevered pitch lately, after Twitter last week blocked an unverified New York Post story about alleged emails from Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s son. The decision has been denounced by Fox News and some Republicans, including Utah Sen. Mike Lee, who are accusing tech companies of anti-conservative bias.
However, Hawkins and Sevier argued that the issue of censorship crosses party lines. The state lawmaker cited a recent Pew Research Center survey that found about two-thirds of Americans indicated they have little or no confidence in social media companies to properly identify and label inaccurate or misleading posts.
However, Pew also showed that these concerns are far more pronounced among Republicans, with about nine in 10 saying they believe social media companies likely censor political viewpoints. By comparison, only about 59% of Democrats expressed this viewpoint.
Rose Feliciano, a representative of the Internet Association, challenged the idea that social media companies are muffling conservative voices, saying it wouldn’t be in their own best interest. On Facebook, for instance, the posts with the highest engagement on most days are from conservative accounts, Politico has reported.
“Right now, conservative voices are more prominent because of social media. Online platforms offer the most open and accessible form of communication for all Americans,” Feliciano said. “The platforms do not have a political ideology. It would make no business sense for companies to stifle half of their users.”