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Group: Georgia can block internet firms from censoring views

May 20, 2021 GMT

ATLANTA (AP) — The leader of a conservative group told Georgia state lawmakers Thursday that free speech rights of Americans should at least partially override the private property rights of internet companies, arguing that large technology companies are improperly censoring speech.

The House Science and Technology Committee hearing could lay groundwork for Georgia lawmakers next year to consider bills meant to oppose such censorship, although chairman Ed Setzler, an Acworth Republican, said he didn’t favor the remedies that lawmakers in other states have brought forward thus far. But Setzler said he believed social media companies may be public accommodations, like a restaurant or hotel, that can’t legally discriminate against customers.

The hearing featured testimony from the Heartland Institute, a conservative group that has testified on more than 20 proposals being considered. Leaders of the Illinois-based group said 70 bills have been introduced in 33 states this year. They argue lawmakers should act to force the companies to allow free expression.

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“We have unalienable rights to share our ideas, our political, cultural and religious ideas, and in the 21st Century, the public square is the internet,” said James Taylor, Heartland’s president.

Conservatives have said for some time that their viewpoints are discriminated against by companies including Facebook and Twitter. Those concerns rose after social media companies shut down Donald Trump’s accounts after rioters breached the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, concluding that Trump had incited violence.

“We are here in my personal opinion because Facebook and Twitter have limited President Trump,” said Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat.

Setzler disagreed with OIiver’s statement, saying he wanted to “direct this in a way that’s productive” and look for a long-term solution.

Heartland argues that a 1996 federal law only allows internet companies to remove sexually explicit or excessively violent material. Taylor argued state lawmakers were free to block internet companies from removing or downplaying other kinds of material.

“The whims of politics, they shift, they change,” Taylor said. “And if you allow, whether it’s a few corporations or any entity, the right to restrict our free speech, then we are setting ourselves up for a recurrence of oppression.”

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Florida lawmakers have passed a bill that seeks to block companies from removing political candidates from their platforms and orders the company to provide users an option to see all content posted without influence of a filter or algorithm. It’s likely to face legal challenges. Other states have considered measures that would ban viewpoint discrimination, let people sue over such discrimination, or ban governments from doing business with companies that states conclude are engaged in censorship.

Democrats are skeptical of the arguments, saying Georgia shouldn’t infringe on private companies and that the First Amendment only bars government from limiting speech.

“Are you arguing that people have a constitutional right to use Facebook, Twitter and other platforms?” asked Rep. Shea Roberts, an Atlanta Democrat.

Other Democrats argued the problem is better left to federal authorities.

“What we’re talking about is seizing the printing press, so everyone, no matter how unpopular, is able to express themselves,” said Rep. David Dreyer, an Atlanta Democrat. “And if there is a monopoly on printing presses, there is a way to deal with that, and it is federal antitrust law.”

Rep. Chuck Martin, an Alpharetta Republican, said he thought lawmakers needed to walk “a fine line,” but said he found the choices made by tech companies to be “subjective.”

“If there’s going to be speech allowed, it should not be censored from one group or another,” Martin said.

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Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.