2021 Leg Session, Civil Liberties, Gold Dome, Politics

Liston: A close call for free speech in Colorado

George Orwell intended “1984” as a warning, but State Senator Kerry Donovan must’ve thought it was an instruction manual. In the novel, thought police forbid the expression of every opinion not approved by society’s rulers. Before it was amended into virtually nothing, Senate Bill 21-132, “Digital Communications Regulation,” sought to limit Colorado businesses’ free speech on social media through government dictates.

The bill as introduced would have mandated that social media companies register with a newly established “Digital Communications Division,” or they would be charged with a class 2 misdemeanor and a daily $5,000 fine. The commission would’ve determined both the veracity and definition of ambiguous offenses such as “hate speech,” “fake news,” and “conspiracy theories,” on social media.

Colorado Democratic leadership did not respond to this attack on the fabric of American democracy with the total and unequivocal condemnation it deserves but instead chose deafening silence. Even though the bill was watered down to a study, SB21-132 could have easily become law if not for Republicans in the Senate sounding the alarms on talk radio, social media, and other outlets.

There is a raging debate as to whether the tech giants’ speech regulations, which operate similarly to SB21-132, have gone too far. If corporations are being questioned about censoring the speech they don’t want, certainly the government should not be silencing the speech that it doesn’t want. Government-endorsed censorship is exactly why the First Amendment was adopted.

Both the Constitution of the United States and the State of Colorado explicitly protect freedom of speech. The cornerstone of American democracy, it is the right to be an authentic individual with our own thoughts, beliefs, and values, undeterred by those who think differently.

This right is so central, that Thurgood Marshall, the first black Justice of the United States Supreme Court, joined a unanimous ruling that a klansman had the right to spew his vile hatred in the 1969 case Brandenburg vs Ohio. Marshall believed that even the evil words of a klansman should be protected – as abhorrent as they may be. While it may be easy for us to cheer as the ridiculousness of racism and conspiracy are eliminated from the internet, it does not take much for the wrong people at the helm in state government to decide that your posts were indeed conspiracies, fake news, or even hate speech.

This unconstitutional bill was indicative of a shift in our culture. In our current environment only those who are in lock step with the radical left are considered worthy of having a place on the public stage. If we live in a culture that no longer values the freedom of expression from those who disagree with us, then it is unsurprising that our laws will reflect it.

President Joe Biden promoted unity in his inaugural address. But there are two types of unity that can be achieved. We can respect and live with each other despite our disagreements, and in our mutual respect for liberty, find unity. Or, we can have unity through conformity, whereby the strong dominate the weak, and unity is achieved by silencing the opposition. America must choose which type of unity we desire, if we want our country and the liberties it protects to flourish, it must be the former.

Thankfully, this time the bill’s original intent failed, but it should serve as a warning. We should be simultaneously horrified and grateful for it. It should horrify us because the original bill was the most blatant attack on our fundamental liberties in recent memory. It should horrify us that rather than being seen as fringe, the Colorado Democratic leadership is supporting it through its silence. But we should also have gratitude that the Democrats are up front about what they would like to do to their opposition. Rather than live together with our disagreements, they would have our culture and our laws silence us. The society which Orwell imagines in “1984,” governed by the thought police, is unified. There is no dissent, there is one voice.  But that kind of unity should never be welcomed inside the borders of Colorado, or the United States.

Larry Liston, a Republican, represents Senate District 10 in Colorado Springs.

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