Free speech debate continues to boil in Washington

Published: Aug. 18, 2023 at 3:19 PM EDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - A debate over free speech is playing out on a national stage. Lawsuits involving the Biden administration, heated hearings in the House of Representatives, are all centering around the First Amendment.

“There’s a growing realization that this has become a problem,” said Brad Smith, founder of the Institute for Free Speech.

Smith says the executive branch allegedly working with tech companies to censor social media posts represents a dangerous new world.

“The government should not be engaged in that. That’s exactly what the First Amendment’s intended to stop,” said Smith.

The alleged censorship efforts are being examined in the case Missouri v. Biden, which is still working its way through the court system. The Biden administration is accused of a campaign to convince social media companies to take down information that might misguide Americans on vaccines and other pandemic-related information.

Senator Rand Paul (R-Kent.) is trying to make this kind of activity illegal through a new bill. He says his Free Speech Protection Act would impose severe penalties on executive branch employees who censor free speech.

“Opinions about vaccines or masks or Hunter Biden - those are opinions, and the government has no role in trying to regulate that speech,” said Paul.

But what if the speech in question is causing harm to communities? In a recent House hearing, Democrat Stacey Plaskett (D-U.S.V.I.) took aim at what she considers to be a misinformation campaign aided by conservatives.

“They want to give expression to the most vile sorts of speech here in this committee room because it prepares the ground for their own conspiracy theories and pseudo-science,” said Plaskett.

The Subcommittee on Weaponization of Federal Government heard testimony from Robert F Kennedy Jr., a Democratic candidate for president and COVID-19 vaccine skeptic who claims he was censored by the government for his views online. Plaskett and Maya Wiley, President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, say the spreading of misinformation can be destructive.

“Let’s be kind. Let’s be respectful. And let’s descend into a real discussion about facts, where we can disagree about their meaning but not about their existence,” said Wiley in her testimony.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) introduced a companion bill in the House, the same as Paul’s. So far only Republicans are supporting the legislation.