The latest salvo in Greg Abbott’s culture war comes courtesy of Senate Bill 12, which will allow social media users to sue companies like Facebook and Twitter if their accounts are banned for violating the terms of service. Authored by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineloa), Abbott sees it as a tool against what he perceives to be anti-conservative bias in online spaces.
“What they are doing, they are controlling the flow of information and sometimes denying the flow of information,” said Governor Greg Abbot in a press conference last Friday. “They are in the position of choosing which viewpoints are going to be allowed.”
Abbott and other conservatives have asserted that their opinions are increasingly being censored. Former President Donald Trump had his tweets flagged and ultimately his Twitter account suspended over repeated false statements regarding the 2020 election, particularly after conspiracy theorists stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, killing several people and injuring over a hundred more.
Though his was the most high-profile examples of conservatives receiving bans over misinformation and bigotry, it was by no means the only. Former Breitbart journalist Milo Yiannopolous was unverified by Twitter and then banned for instigating a racist harassment campaign against actress Leslie Jones. Yiannopoulos was able to secure an appearance at the White House daily press briefing to ask whether such moves by social media companies amounted to censorship. Then White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest encouraged people who felt Twitter had wrongfully silenced them to proceed in the courts.
Shortly after the election, Rep Roger Williams (R-Austin), also found himself on the end of a brief Twitter ban when his @rogerwilliamstx account tweeted that the 2020 election was corrupt. His access was shortly restored.
The move to enable people to reclaim their online voices when they appear to have violated the terms and services of a private company is an odd move for the usually hands-off pro-business party. It could also be seen as somewhat hypocritical. In 2019, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick banned a credentialed capitol journalist, Scott Braddock, from the senate floor over tweets about one of Patrick’s aides. By contrast, Patrick allowed Empower Texans – a far-right conservative dark money group – to be credentialed for coverage even after a federal judge upheld a decision to deny the group access as journalists.
There is no evidence of widespread anti-conservative bias on social media. A recent report from New York University thoroughly explored the controversy and found no systemic bias. The report cited work from the Oxford Internet Institute that showed that it was not conservative opinions, but misinformation that led to most bans. That hard-right accounts dominate the spread of misinformation speaks more about the problem with conservatism than it does with Twitter.
The bill is almost certainly unconstitutional and likely to be struck down if it ever became law. News of it quickly drew criticism from legal experts.
“You are so dumb you don’t understand the difference between government censorship and private speech decisions,” said Eric Segall, the Ashe Family Chair Professor of Law of Georgia State University on Twitter. “One violates the 1st amendment and one is protected by the 1st amendment. Your bill flips the two. Dumb and unconstitutional and I think very little is unconstitutional.”
Sam Brunson, the Georgia Reithal Professor Law at Loyola University Chicago, added: “Yet another Republican announces that he really doesn’t give a damn about little things like, say, the First Amendment to the Constitution.”
Twitter itself has already taken the fight to Texas’ Republican leadership. After weeks of being accused of silencing conservatives, specifically Trump, by Attorney General Ken Paxton, Twitter asserted its own first amendment rights in a lawsuit filed in a Northern California court.
“Paxton made clear that he will use the full weight of his office, including his expansive investigatory powers, to retaliate against Twitter for having made editorial decisions with which he disagrees,” Twitter’s lawyers wrote.
The lawsuit comes immediately after Abbott’s endorsement of SB 12 and is clearly a warning shot to the Texas government that the media giant will not take the attack lying down. With any luck, the bill will die an ignoble death in the senate rather than waste Texas taxpayer money defending it against the inevitable lawsuits that will cosign it to its rightful place in the trash bin of conservative nonsense.