Ray Carter | February 23, 2021
Oklahoma lawmakers target social-media censorship
Amidst growing outcry over alleged censorship by social media platforms, particularly against political conservatives, members of the Oklahoma Senate have voted to impose new penalties on social media companies found to have engaged in such activity.
Senate Bill 383, by Sen. Rob Standridge, would make social media sites “subject to a private right of action” if the social media site “purposely deletes or censors a social media website user’s political speech or religious speech; or uses an algorithm to suppress political speech or religious speech.”
Standridge said the legislation targets “social media company abuses where they discriminate against users for political or religious beliefs and shut their accounts and block their communications.”
“I’ve been contacted by many constituents, as I’m sure a lot (of lawmakers) have, and so this bill simply gives them a right for legal action,” said Standridge, R-Norman. “It doesn’t give them a guarantee at all. It just simply gives them a right for civil action and sets the parameters for that. They still have to get a hearing for the case and they still have to win their case.”
The bill provides for minimum damages of $75,000 per incident.
SB 383 also states that a social media company cannot “use the social media website user’s alleged hate speech as a basis for justification or defense to the action,” and defines “hate speech” as “a phrase concerning content that an individual arbitrarily finds offensive based on his or her personal moral code.”
Sen. Michael Brooks, D-Oklahoma City, questioned the soundness of the definition of “hate speech” included in the bill.
Standridge indicated that “hate speech” has been used as a catchall excuse for censorship applied with little consistency.
“There’s a difference between inciting violence and hate speech,” Standridge said. “So, as ‘hate speech’ is sometimes subjective, what this bill does is say you can’t say somebody’s subjective analysis of a post qualifies as a reason for removing somebody’s post.”
Under SB 383, social media companies would be allowed to censor posts that call for “immediate acts of violence,” are “obscene or pornographic in nature,” “enticed criminal conduct,” or involve the bullying of minors.
Brooks questioned if the bill would allow people to post calls for violence so long as they do not endorse “immediate” violence.
“That being the exception, then it can be easily sidestepped by just calling for eventual acts of violence,” Brooks said.
Standridge said “the bar is extremely high” for a litigant “to be able to get a judgement in a civil court based on that exception.”
“In other words, if they are calling for violence, it would be up to that judge, probably, to rule whether he considers that an immediate call or not,” Standridge said.
SB 383 passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 5-3 vote that broke along party lines with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed.
Senate Bill 1019, by Sen. Nathan Dahm, states that any entity operating under the protections of a platform as defined by the federal Communications Decency Act would be subject to a fine of $10,000 per instance whenever that platform “engages in censorship activities consistent with the definition of a publisher or that removes content that is not prohibited by law.”
In addition, SB 1019 would strip such entities of any state tax credit they receive in Oklahoma during “any year in which they have engaged in censorship activities.”
“This bill would allow the state of Oklahoma—if there is an entity that currently has the protections of a platform under United States code, section 230, if they are operating as a publisher rather than under those platform protections—that they could be fined here in the state of Oklahoma,” said Dahm, R-Broken Arrow. “Or if they are receiving any sort of tax credit or tax break here in the state, they would also be subject to losing that tax credit or tax break.”
SB 1019 passed on a 5-2 vote of the Senate Judiciary Committee that broke along party lines with Republicans in support and Democrats in opposition.
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.