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Utah Lawmaker Planning A New Version Of Vetoed Social Media Free Speech Bill

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Tero Vesalainen/Getty Images/iStockphoto
A Utah state senator is bringing back a bill that would require social media companies to provide more transparency on their comment and moderation practices. Gov. Spencer Cox vetoed the bill in March over concerns it was constitutional and needed better coordination with other states.

A controversial proposal to crack down on social media content moderation could make a comeback in the Utah Legislature.

The bill would require social media companies to notify users when their post is taken down or moderated. It would also allow people to appeal the decision or make a complaint to the Utah Attorney General’s office. And, it would require moderation policies to be equitably applied.

“Social media platforms have been very clear that they are creating a public forum where there's a free flow of ideas,” bill sponsor Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said. “Yet in that free flow of ideas, they are able to remove content without any liability at all. So, we need to create a standard that's fair to everybody.”

Gov. Spencer Cox vetoed the bill in March over concerns it was unconstitutional and needed better coordination with other states.

McKell said he’s excited to spend more time on a new version and gather more input from stakeholders before it is considered during next year’s legislative session.

“The good news is we have a reset,” McKell said. “One of the things that is important to me and I think to my legislative colleagues is we spend time working with our tech community and we craft a solution that's appropriate.”

Issues With the Old Bill

McKell said he is reaching out to other states who have considered similar legislation, although he argued the issue would best be handled through federal legislation.

As for constitutional concerns, McKell maintains the law would hold up in court because states are allowed to regulate contracts and because the policies would be applied evenly to all users.

However, others said it could be in conflict with federal legislation that shields social media companies from being sued over user-generated content, like a video uploaded to YouTube.

“There is a section ... of the Communications Decency Act, which says that the legislation going on [at] the state level has to be consistent with that section of the law,” said James Czerniawski, a technology and innovation policy analyst at the libertarian think tank Libertas Institute.

That could mean McKell’s bill would violate a section of the constitution that states federal law takes priority over state laws.

Helping or Hurting Free Speech?

McKell said his goal is to bolster free speech online.

But his bill could actually have the opposite effect, according to Czerniawski. He said social media companies could get aggressive with removing content that could possibly violate their terms of service so they couldn’t be accused of bias in what they’re taking down.

“You're just going to see a lot of things taken down, even if they're tangentially related,” he said. “Because why have the liability if you don't have to?”

That would mean less speech overall online, Czerniawski argues.

“That means less speech for you, less speech for me, less speech for all kinds of disenfranchised voices that otherwise have been able to leverage the Internet to be heard in ways that they previously could not be,” he said.

The bill is expected to be discussed during interim committee meetings later this year and potentially taken up by the whole Legislature early next year.

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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