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Texas Senate Passes Bill That Would Punish Social Media Companies For Alleged Political Censorship

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is looking into whether Facebook violated fair housing laws.
Marcio Jose Sanchez
The Department of Housing and Urban Development is looking into whether Facebook violated fair housing laws.

House Bill 20’s primary Senate sponsor argued that social media platforms are the modern equivalent of “common carriers” and should be treated as such in terms of protecting freedom of speech.

Texas is poised to punish social media companies for alleged censorship of political views after the state Senate passed House Bill 20 on a mostly party line vote of 17-14.

Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes of Mineola, the Senate sponsor, argued that social media platforms are, in effect, common carriers – like phone companies and cable carriers – and should be treated as such from the standpoint of the First Amendment.

"The cable company cannot deny you service based on your religion," Hughes said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "Your cell phone provider doesn't cut you off because of your politics."

The GOP-backed bill is a response to Twitter and Facebook shutting down accounts like former President Trump’s, and Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to punish social media companies that have removed conservatives from their platforms.

Similar legislation was passed in Florida, but a judge later blocked its implementation.

Hughes dismissed criticism that the law was partisan, pointing to an instance in which Democratic U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren had an ad targeting social media platforms over free speech removed, though it was later reinstated.

The heart of the bill is a section that would allow users banned by social media to sue for reinstatement if banned by a social media site based on political views. If that person can’t find a private attorney, the attorney general may bring a suit on the person’s behalf.

"For the first time, Texas will have some recourse," Hughes said.

In response to a question by Republican Senator Drew Springer of Muenster, Hughes stressed that the bill would not apply to commercial websites whose primary purpose is to sell goods and services, and which might contain customer reviews.

The amended measure will now go to a conference committee to iron out differences with the House version.

If approved, the bill would likely be signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott, who made the legislation a priority in the special session.

In announcing his support for similar legislation in March, Abbott blasted social media companies for what he deemed the wrongful deplatforming of conservatives.

“Social media sites have become our modern day public squares where information should be able to flow freely, but social media companies are now acting as judge and jury on determining what viewpoints are valid," Abbott said at the time. "America was built on freedom of speech and healthy public debate, and efforts to silence conservative viewpoints on social media are wrong and weaken public discourse.”

Critics of the bill argue it infringes on the First Amendment rights of social media providers themselves. Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel of the trade group Net Choice, was part of the suit that blocked the Florida law.

"There are a lot of lawmakers who will have egg on their faces if they back this type of legislation, either because it is so clearly unconstitutional in violation of the First Amendment, or because it is their constituents who will be exposed to lawful but awful content," Szabo told Houston public Media in July.

Copyright 2021 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Andrew Schneider | Houston Public Media