Utah Gov. Spencer Cox vetoed a bill on Tuesday that sought to limit perceived censorship by social media companies like Facebook and Twitter.
Senate Bill 228, which narrowly passed during this year’s legislative general session, would have required social media companies to provide “clear information about the social corporation’s moderation practices” and created “an opportunity for a Utah account holder to appeal certain moderation practices that the social media corporation employs on a Utah account holder’s account or post,” according to a summary of the bill.
“What this does is it deals with free speech. I think our free speech rights have been infringed by some large tech folks and I think that’s a problem,” Republican Spanish Fork Sen. Mike McKell, the bill’s sponsor, told lawmakers on March 1. “And I think what we’ve got is a good bill to create a process to create transparency; that’s what this bill does.”
In a press release, the governor’s office said Cox had vetoed the bill, his first veto since taking office in January, “due to technical issues” with the legislation and after speaking with legislative leadership.
The press release noted that “censorship by tech companies is a serious concern” and that the veto “will not hinder nor prevent Utah from finding the right policy solution.”
“The sponsors of this bill have raised valid questions about the impact social media platforms can have on public discourse and debate,” Cox said. “Our country continues to grapple with very real and novel issues around freedom of speech, the rights of private companies and the toxic divisiveness caused by these new forms of connection, information and communication. While I have serious concerns about the bill, I appreciate the willingness of the bill’s sponsors to continue to seek a better solution.”
Lawmakers considered the bill following cries at the national level of liberal bias among social media company executives and censorship of conservative posts and accounts.
“Not very many things infuriate me more than to see blatant censorship, especially when it's one-sided,” Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, told his colleagues on Feb. 26 while speaking in support of the bill. “And I can cite 10 examples from the last six months.”
But other state lawmakers said the bill raised questions of constitutionality, including Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, who said he had “real concerns” and believed social media platforms should be able to make the same editorial judgments as newspapers, TV stations and other forms of media.
“They make that decision,” Davis said. “And these (social) media companies are no different, I don’t believe, than our general media is.”
Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, said the bill is “completely unenforceable” and “has no parameters."
“I don’t understand how this is actually going to work,” said Riebe. “So unless we can enforce something, I really don’t think we should be passing laws.”
S.B. 228 passed 21-6 in the Senate on March 1 and 39-35 in the House on March 4.
In the press release, McKell said he intends to open a new bill on May 5 to address the censorship issues.
“Censorship practices are un-American and likely unconstitutional,” he said. “In Utah, we defend the right to freely express opinions and views, regardless of political or religious affiliation.”
The Spanish Fork senator continued, “The outcome of S.B. 228 is not ideal; however, the issue of free speech and online censorship remains a priority and policy will continue to be refined throughout the interim.”