COLUMBUS — State Rep. Al Cutrona of Canfield, R-59th, intends to introduce legislation prohibiting social media platforms from "censoring" their users outside of applicable state or federal laws.
“With social media being a quintessential form of communication these days, this bill is to ensure people’s constitutional right to freedom of speech is not infringed on,” Cutrona is quoted in a news release. “As Americans, obviously we are not all going to agree with one another on thoughts and ideas, and that’s OK. But it’s surely not the job of Big Tech employees to choose favorites on what deserves censorship based on ambiguous policies and their personal views.”
Twenty-nine other states have introduced similar legislation, according to Cutrona’s office.
Cutrona’s bill, which is expected to be introduced soon, would stop social media platforms from banning users or censoring posts for “the ideas they express.” It doesn’t protect posts that violate state or federal law — for example, by inciting violence or crime or making directed threats, which are illegal. It would require the companies to tell users why their content was removed and give them a chance to appeal the decision.
According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, exceptions to First Amendment-protected speech include incitement of actions that would harm others — such as "shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater" — and the distribution of illegally obscene materials or child pornography, among more specific examples.
Social media companies would also be required to publicly disclose their methods for managing content and data and explain how content is curated and targeted, including any algorithms used in the process.
The bill also gives users whose posts are removed grounds for civil relief as well as the ability to file a complaint with the Ohio Attorney General, who can then bring civil action against the company.
“These monopolized Big Tech platforms should not have the power to dictate what they deem as acceptable speech, that’s exactly why we have the First Amendment and why I’m introducing this legislation,” Cutrona said.
Though Cutrona agreed to a Friday interview for this article, he did not make himself available to Mahoning Matters.
Youngstown attorney and former Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman David Betras said he feels the freshman legislator is “pandering to his base.
“It’s just nothing more than a cheap parlor trick from a cheap politician who’s playing to the worst instincts of his base,” he told Mahoning Matters Friday.
Government cannot regulate speech, Betras said, adding that “there’s no way” Cutrona’s bill passes constitutional muster. Moreover, private companies like Facebook and Twitter have the right to refuse business to anyone, he said.
It’s also unclear how state-level regulations would affect companies like Facebook and Twitter, both of which are incorporated in Delaware — as are more than two-thirds of all other Fortune 500 companies — and headquartered in California.
Youngstown State communications professor Adam Earnheardt said the concept of online speech platforms barring political voices including former President Donald Trump and Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene — both of whom have been banned from Twitter for sharing content the platform deemed to be misinformation — is “the most slippery of slopes.”
“The bigger question should be: ‘Do we silence all liars or only the ones who don’t comport with our points-of-view or what we know is fact?’” he told Mahoning Matters in a text message.
Facebook and Twitter continue to fact-check and flag users’ posts as misleading or unfactual — including COVID-19 posts shared by Julie Gentile, the head of YSU’s pandemic safety committee. Most flagged social media posts in the last nine months related to the contentious 2020 presidential election and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Earnheardt said he wonders how such widely used platforms that sell or otherwise leverage user data for targeted advertisements have suddenly become “the arbiters of truth” — the ones telling users what’s true and what isn’t.
“Any time legislation like this is proposed, it's a victory for First Amendment absolutists,” Earnheardt said. “However, it's also very likely just the first step in a long, arduous, protracted battle in the courts between those who believe their ideas are being silenced by tech monopolies and the companies who ban users and content they deem harmful to their platforms.
“It also could be the first step in an attempt to regulate Big Tech like we do utilities.”
Betras noted the widening scope of American social media companies has so far outpaced federal regulations for them.
“I don’t think [platform developers] know what they created and I don’t think we know what they created [or] what to do with what they created,” he said.
“They’re self-regulating now. Unless the government comes in and tries to break them up, there’s not much anyone can do about it.”