Bill that would prevent social media websites from barring political or religious speech dies in committee

Social media apps are broadcast on an iPhone. (Getty Images)

State Rep. Beryl Amedee, a Houma Republican, found little support Monday for her “Social Media Free Speech Act,” legislation she proposed to prevent social media platforms from blocking political or religious speech or the people who make such speech.  

“Major social media websites have engaged in the greatest bait and switch of all times by marketing themselves as free, fair, and open to all ideas to induce subscribers,” Amedee’s bill proclaims, “only to then prove otherwise at great expense to consumers and election integrity.” Amedee’s HB 602 would have allowed social media users to sue the platforms for up to $75,000 if their religious or political speech was squashed, but the Louisiana House Commerce Committee voted 9-4 against her bill.  

Amedee testified Monday that she has “friends who have pages and websites set up to handle political content who have been restricted, deleted or diminished. And also friends who have developed websites to put out health information, who have also been very restricted.”

She said, “It seems that over time, social media websites have been increasingly practicing content restrictions.”

“I have about $150,000 in law school debt that shows me that this bill is unconstitutional,” Rep. Kyle Green (D-Marrero) said.

Chris Marchese, an attorney for NetChoice, an organization that opposes government regulation of the internet, said it would “force (private businesses) to violate their own beliefs.” Marchese testified against the bill even though, he said, “I’m a lifelong conservative, lifelong Republican and a lifelong supporter of free speech.”

“This bill does not promote any of the values that we should hold as Republicans or conservatives,” Marchese said. “And if enacted it will unfortunately have the unintended consequence of creating content cesspools on the internet.”

Eric Peterson, director of the Pelican Center for Technology and Innovation at Pelican Institute, said his concern with the bill was that its definitions for “social media website” was too broad — and websites like Wikipedia, Yahoo, Twitch, Amazon, Discord, eBay, etc. would be included.

If somebody “decided that — rather than writing a useful review for an eBay product –but decided to go on a political rant, and post that for review” on eBay, and eBay removed that post or mark it as a less useful review, Peterson said then eBay would be liable for a $75,000 cause of action.

“I don’t think eBay is anybody’s idea of any public square for political discourse, but they would nonetheless be caught up in this legislation,” Peterson said.

A similar bill, Sen. Jay Morris’s (R-West Monroe) SB 196 — or the “Stop Social Media Censorship Act” — advanced from the Senate Commerce Committee by a 4-2 vote last week. Morris’s bill also allows social media users to sue — for up to $75,000 — social media websites for deleting, censoring or using the algorithm to disfavor the user’s religious speech or political speech. Morris’s bill does not protect calls to violence, obscene or pornographic content or bullying.

Amedee told a reporter she believes her bill was killed while Morris’s bill advanced to the Senate floor because the Senate Commerce Committee didn’t bring up the same constitutionality questions, despite Morris sponsoring “virtually the same bill.”

“We’ll see if they have the same reservations,” Amedee said of the House Commerce Committee if Morris’s bill passes in the Senate and the same committee that killed her bill hears Morris’.

Several of the major social media platforms canceled accounts of people they believed were spreading disinformation or citing violence, particularly after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.  Twitter cut off former President Donald Trump after that deadly attack, and Facebook suspended him.  On Wednesday morning, the Facebook Oversight Board, a group created by the social media platform to independently respond to complaints about the platform, will announce whether Trump will be allowed to return to Facebook.