House lawmakers propose legislation to punish federal employees who censor civilians online

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House lawmakers are set to consider legislation that will punish federal employees through civil penalties who use their positions to advocate for censoring civilian viewpoints.

The “Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act,” which expands the Hatch Act, defines censorship as using influence or coercion to remove or suppress lawful speech from an interactive computer service.

It also sees censorship as adding a disclaimer or other alerts to lawful speech expressed on an interactive computer service or restricting a person’s access to a publicly available interactive computer service under certain conditions.

The legislation states that “lawful speech” is defined as speech protected by the Constitution’s First Amendment.

The legislation, authored by Rep. James Comer, Kentucky Republican and Chairman of the House Oversight Committee has 16 GOP co-sponsors and is expected on the House floor this week.

The bill is unlikely to make its way to the Democratic-controlled Senate, but Republicans will use it as fodder in the upcoming 2024 elections.

The bill comes in the wake of Elon Musk’s release of the past management’s Twitter files, which revealed backchannel communications between FBI personnel and now former Twitter management back in December.

In numerous emails from November 2022, leading up to this year’s midterm elections, the FBI compiled a list of accounts that the agency had determined violated Twitter’s terms of service, independent journalist Matt Taibbi, showed.

In one email, Elvis Chan, the assistant Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s San Francisco Cyber Branch, identified 25 accounts determined by the agency’s National Election Command Post as having disseminated “false information about the time, place, or manner of the upcoming elections.”

“Let us know if you decide to take any actions against these accounts based on our tipper to you,” the email read. “Also let us know if we need to issue a preservation letter as we intend to serve legal process for the accounts. Thanks for your consideration.”

A Twitter employee replied with an update to the FBI, saying that it had permanently suspended seven of the accounts, temporarily suspended one account and “had Tweets bounced for civic misinformation policy violations” from nine accounts.

“Many of the above accounts were satirical in nature, nearly all… were relatively low engagement, and some were suspended, most with a generic, ‘Thanks, Twitter’ letter,” Mr. Taibbi wrote.

Although activities related to law enforcement would be exempted from the bill’s prohibition, agencies undertaking these actions under that exclusion would need to report to Congress before taking any action.

An employee who violates this measure of legislation could result in additional civil penalty collections, which are treated as revenues in the budget. Disciplinary actions listed bill are removal, reduction in grade, debarment from Federal employment for a period not to exceed 5 years, suspension or reprimand.

A federal staffer can also face a civil penalty assessment not exceeding $1,000. However, any employee who is a senior government official who is paid from an appropriation for the White House Office, appointed by the President with and without a Senate confirmation, can face a civil penalty not to exceed $10,000.

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