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Texas Republicans pass bill to strike back at social media 'censorship'

Texas Republicans pass bill to strike back at social media 'censorship'

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Texas GOP voting bill on fast track after standstill ends

State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, is the author of the bill.

Texas governor Greg Abbott signed a bill Thursday night that takes aim at large social media companies over what he dubbed "wrongful" political censorship of conservative users on their platforms.

House Bill 20 is a priority of Republicans who have accused Facebook, Twitter and other platforms of censoring or silencing conservatives — including former president Donald Trump. They have pointed in recent weeks to Twitter's decision to allow the Taliban to post on the site while Trump remains banned for inciting the mob that stormed the Capitol in January with false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

Under the new state law, social media companies with more than 50 million monthly active users will be prohibited from banning or suspending users based on their viewpoint. They also cannot remove or "deny equal access or visibility" to content based on a user's viewpoint.

The law also calls for platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to make content moderation policies public and to create systems of appeals for users who believe they've been wrongfully moderated, among other provisions.

Abbott posted a video to Twitter Thursday night explaining his tactical reasoning behind the legislation.

"Freedom of speech is under attack in Texas," Abbott decried. "There is a dangerous movement by some social media companies to silence conservative ideas and values. Today I'm about to sign a law that fights back against big tech political censorship."

An earlier version of the bill also would have barred companies from adding an addendum to a post, as Twitter began doing to some of Trump's tweets last year, but that language was removed in a last-minute amendment.

Social media companies have defended their approach, arguing that they are trying to clamp down on misinformation — particularly about the 2020 election — and incendiary posts that may provoke violence. The companies have also come under fire from liberals who say they have let misinformation spread unchecked and are still not doing enough to address the issue.

The bill also establishes a mechanism for users or the Texas attorney general to sue social media platforms thought to be violating a provision of the law and obtain a court order reinstating the account or post.

House Bill 20 is all but certain to face legal opposition from industry groups who challenged a similar law enacted in Florida earlier this year. A federal judge temporarily struck down that law in June, finding that the measure violated social media companies' First Amendment rights.

Democrats in both chambers of the Texas Legislature opposed House Bill 20, arguing it would prevent social media companies from removing content they deem to be harmful.

Republicans noted that the bill allows social media platforms to remove content that "directly incites criminal activity or consists of specific threats of violence" targeting a person or group based on their "race, color, disability, religion, national origin or ancestry, age, sex, or status as a peace officer or judge."

Companies may also remove content that meets the standards of "unlawful expression" in the U.S. and Texas Constitution or under federal or state law.

Republicans rejected amendments from Democrats that would have allowed social media platforms to block content that "includes the denial of the Holocaust" or promotes "vaccine disinformation" or terrorist groups and acts.

The language in Texas' new bill is specifically aimed at stopping bans of users "based on their political viewpoints"— a nebulous framing that leaves much to individual interpretation. More likely, Abbott's attempt to dictate the conduct of private companies based outside Texas' jurisdiction will serve more as pointed political messaging than real, actionable lawmaking. At the very least, a loss on this battleground still looks good to donors.

The bill's author, state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R- Deer Park, was suspended from Twitter for six months over an exchange with Democrat Beto O'Rourke spurred by the former congressman's comment during a 2019 presidential debate in Houston.

"Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47," O'Rourke said as he discussed his plan for a mandatory gun buyback program for assault weapons.

Cain responded on Twitter: "My AR is ready for you Robert Francis."

If Abbott signs the bill into law, it will take effect three months after the legislative session ends.

The bill passed the Legislature along mostly party lines, though state Sen. Kel Seliger, R- Amarillo, joined Senate Democrats in voting against it.

Two Republicans — state Reps. Giovanni Capriglione of Southlake and Charlie Geren of Fort Worth — voted against the bill in the House on Thursday. Two other Republicans — state Reps. Dan Huberty of Houston and Lyle Larson of San Antonio — also opposed the measure in an earlier vote.

A prior version of the bill cleared the Senate but died in the House during the spring.

Texas' law follows a similar social media censorship bill that was passed by Florida governor Ron DeSantis but was quickly blocked in July by a federal judge.

DeSantis' version sought to "stop the censorship of Floridians by Big Tech," and gave the state the right to levy fines of up to $250,000 per day upon any social media company that "de-platforms any [political] candidate for statewide office." As reported by CBS News, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle granted a preliminary injunction against the law after it was challenged in federal court by a firm representing a consortium of social media companies including Twitter and Facebook.

Dan Carson of the Houston Chronicle contributed to this report.

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