September 19, 2018

Here come the California speech police

By Timothy R. Snowball Attorney

While the United States has much to thank Great Britain for, including our common law system and our preference for coffee over tea, when it comes to modern politics the ideals of certain segments of the British Parliament have been in direct conflict with the foundational ideals of America. Especially when it comes to free speech issues.

Such is the case with Parliament member Lucy Powell’s proposal to use government force to ban private online group discussions. According to Powell, private online groups “locks out the police, intelligence services and charities that could otherwise engage with the groups and correct disinformation.” Powell asserts that her proposed legislation is intended to combat hate, disinformation, and criminal activity. Worthy goals, no doubt. But at what cost?

Thankfully nothing like that could ever happen in the United States. Right?

Not so fast.

California is currently set to be the first state in the U.S. to propose regulating online speech. The California Assembly and Senate recently approved S.B. 1424, the “Internet: social media: advisory group” act, which now only awaits the signature of Governor Brown to become law. The bill reads, in part:

“The Attorney General shall, subject to the limitations of subdivision (d), establish an advisory group consisting of at least one member of the Department of Justice, Internet-based social media providers, civil liberties advocates, and First Amendment scholars, to do both of the following:
(a) Study the problem of the spread of false information through Internet-based social media platforms.
(b) Draft a model strategic plan for Internet-based social media platforms to use to mitigate the spread of false information through their platforms.”

Somewhere George Orwell is shaking his head.

Government regulation of speech is a slippery slope. Once a step is taken toward government deciding what is “true” or “false” or what views are “worthwhile” and worthy of being shared, it is only a matter of time until politicians with ideological agendas decide to attempt to elevate their own views, to the detriment of individual rights and democracy. The cost of our own freedom of speech depends on a tolerance of the ideas and speech of others. We ourselves are the best judges of the merits of differing views, not the government. The last thing we need is Sacramento politicians deciding where we can speak and what we can say.

According to John Adams, “None of the means of information are more sacred, or have been cherished with more tenderness and care by the settlers of America, than the press. Care has been taken that the art of printing should be encouraged, and that it should be easy and cheap and safe for any person to communicate his thoughts to the public.” In the age of social media we all have a part to play in the free exchange of ideas. And we should not need politicians’ permission to do so.

UPDATE: Gov. Brown vetoed the online speech bill yesterday, although apparently the CA Senate is “considering” that veto (for an override, presumably). More updates to come.

Check out Timothy’s new video series on the Constitution.

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