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OPINION

Cawthorn cries freedom, then plays censor

Posted on January 16, 2021

OpinionColumns
Dave DiFilippo cartoon

Dave DiFilippo cartoon

cfriedman@restorationnewsmedia.com | 252-265-7813

Corey Friedman

Corey Friedman

His name may be a nod to the Founding Father and fourth president, but Rep. Madison Cawthorn is no James Madison.

In only his second week in office, the freshman Republican congressman from North Carolina waded into constitutional quicksand, backing a bid to strong-arm social media companies into relaxing their rules after Twitter and Facebook banned President Donald Trump.

Cawthorn signed on as a cosponsor of H.R. 285, a bill that aims to strip social networks of Section 230 liability protections if they enforce moderation standards “that are not reasonably consistent with the First Amendment to the Constitution.” Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., drafted the legislation, a retread of his Curbing Abuse and Saving Expression in Technology Act introduced last year.

In overwrought public statements, Steube and Cawthorn caterwauled about tech giants’ supposed crackdown on conservatives following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot that left five people dead. Uttered with all the righteous indignation they can muster, their words betray either a profound ignorance of the Constitution or a cynical ploy to subvert it.

The First Amendment is a bulwark against government censorship that doesn’t prevent private companies from deleting posts and suspending users for breaking their rules. Under the free speech clause Cawthorn carelessly invokes, website owners are free to decide which speakers use their megaphone.

“If the congressman’s goal is to prevent Twitter and Facebook from limiting the comments on their site, he’s overlooking the fact that these companies have their own First Amendment rights and the government is barred from requiring they post comments against their will,” explains Ken Paulson, the former USA Today editor-in-chief who now serves as director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University.

Ordering people to parrot messages with which they disagree is compelled speech, which the Supreme Court outlawed in 1943.

Free speech lawyer Ari Cohn scolded Cawthorn for endorsing the “stupid, unconstitutional” bill, concluding in a Twitter mic-drop that “A severely overcooked eggplant parmesan has more intelligence than you could apparently ever hope for.”

Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter banished Trump over his political rhetoric, which they blame for the Capitol carnage. While Trump’s words don’t meet the Supreme Court’s incitement to violence threshold established in Brandenburg v. Ohio, tech companies are free to impose stricter standards. Trump hasn’t been censored, as there’s no constitutional right to a Twitter account.

Cawthorn says Big Tech is tilting the political playing field by targeting conservative speech. “Social media outlets are banning and censoring true Patriots!” he bleats on his campaign website. But Republican Party leaders and right-wing pundits aplenty made it through the purge unscathed.

Twitter suspended 70,000 accounts associated with QAnon, a conspiracy theory the FBI calls a domestic terrorism threat. If these are his “true patriots,” perhaps Cawthorn should keep better company.

Even if they were so inclined, social media giants can’t swap their terms of service for the First Amendment’s broad permissiveness. The U.S.-based companies operate globally, meaning they can be called on to enforce European bans on Holocaust denial or Pakistan’s repressive blasphemy laws. Most American users are accustomed to the sites’ civility rules and would balk at a sudden about-face that allows racial slurs to spill onto their screens undisturbed.

RELATED COLUMN: Don't mistake moderators for censors 

Cawthorn wants to saddle social networks with an impossible task and then punish them when they fail by making them liable for all user content. Meddling with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act would guarantee heavy-handed moderation, achieving the opposite of critics’ stated goal.

“Without Section 230, Facebook and Twitter won’t be able to take the risk of people posting as they please without prior review,” Paulson explains.

Billionaire tech moguls won’t gamble their fortunes on the unlikely prospect that none of their millions of users will ever commit libel, defamation or copyright infringement. Post preapproval and one-strike-and-you’re-out policies would become the norm, and that spells the end of social media as we know it.

James Madison wrote the First Amendment. Madison Cawthorn apparently hasn’t bothered to read it. How else could you mistake “Congress shall make no law” for “Twitter shall make no rule”?

Corey Friedman is editor of The Wilson Times and executive editor of Restoration NewsMedia. In this weekly column for Creators Syndicate, he explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

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