By Clair McFarland, Staff Writer
Federal laws guaranteeing free speech rights on social media outlets such as Twitter are needed regardless of the ownership of those outlets, according to congressional candidate Harriet Hageman.
Hageman, reacting to the announcement that frequent Twitter critic Elon Musk has become Twitter’s largest shareholder, said she still believes Congress needs to draft free speech laws for such operations.
“Elon Musk is a great innovator and disruptor of the status quo,” Hageman wrote in a Tuesday email to Cowboy State Daily. “We don’t know what impact he will have on Twitter, but right now the platform is an obvious, aggressive opponent of true freedom of expression.”
Musk, the CEO of Tesla, is joining the Twitter board of directors after years of railing against Twitter’s content policy, which he has openly called censorship. His 9.2% ownership of the company, which was announced Monday, makes him Twitter’s largest shareholder.
Former president Donald Trump, attorney Sidney Powell, entrepreneur Marjorie Taylor Greene, former baseball player Aubrey Huff and satire forum Babylon Bee all have been suspended from Twitter, which cited its content policies against false or manipulated information in making the suspensions.
“You may not deceptively share synthetic or manipulated media that are likely to cause harm,” reads Twitter’s content policy, along with other stipulations.
A few days before his acquisition of Twitter stock, Musk repeated his assertion that Twitter serves as a “town square” for voicing opinions and must be committed to allowing freedom of speech.
“Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy,” he tweeted on March 26. “What should be done?”
As a Cheyenne attorney, Hageman has promoted the recognition of Twitter and Facebook as “town square” giants that should be forced by federal law to guarantee free speech rights.
Hageman lobbied in 2021 for approval of a bill in the Wyoming Legislature that would have recognized the sites as influential enough to fall subject to First Amendment protections for their users.
The bill would have forbidden “discrimination based on viewpoint, race, religion and location by interactive computer services, social media platforms and businesses as specified.”
The bill died in the House Judiciary Committee, where members worried it would amount to government restrictions on private businesses.
Hageman, an opponent to U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney for the Republican nomination to Wyoming’s lone U.S. House seat, told Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday that she feels the laws around social media still need to be revised.
“Social media has absolutely become the modern-day town square,” wrote Hageman, “where free speech should be at its most unfettered. It ought to offend every American that a handful of Silicon Valley billionaires can restrict how people can express themselves.”
But she suggested that the change needs addressed at the federal level as well.
Hageman pointed specifically to a provision of the Communications Decency Act, “Section 230,” which specifies that operators of interactive computer services — such as Twitter and Facebook — cannot be held responsible for what is said on their platforms.
“What’s been at issue has been removing the protections social media companies enjoy in federal law that say they are not publishers, and therefore are not responsible for the content their users post,” she wrote. “Some have called for the complete removal of those protections, but that would have unintended consequences.”
Sites like Twitter, Hageman wrote, may “censor even more aggressively” if Section 230 was removed.
Hageman said she hopes instead as a member of Congress to reform laws “to reflect the rise of social media’s power, because (the laws) were written before it gained such prominence.
“Our goal,” she continued, “must be to protect free speech so that no one’s voice is silenced because of their political views.”
Twitter Poised for Change
Three days before his acquisition, Musk posted to Twitter a survey asking users if Twitter “rigorously adheres” to free speech. Of respondents, 70.4 % marked “no,” and 29.6% marked “yes.”
Twitter’s stock has gained by 35% since Musk announced that he’s now the largest shareholder in the company.