UPDATE (7:20 a.m. PT) — Oregon Democratic U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden is calling President Donald Trump’s latest high-profile executive order an attack on the First Amendment.
Trump’s order, signed Thursday, directs federal agencies to place new limits on social media companies like Twitter and Facebook, and it would allow lawsuits against these tech giants based on what their online users post. That would essentially reverse the Communications Decency Act of 1995, which Wyden co-wrote.
This comes days after Twitter infuriated the president by marking two of his tweets about mail-in ballots with fact-checking labels — a move that Trump labeled “censorship.” The dispute escalated overnight, after the social media company labeled one of Trump’s tweets as “glorifying violence,” prompting the president to further criticize Twitter on Friday morning.
Wyden joined OPB’s John Notarianni on Thursday to discuss the law he helped write and his take on the president’s actions.
Q&A with U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden
John Notarianni: The president’s frustrations are focused on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Walk us through what that does.
Ron Wyden: The legislation is pretty simple. It’s got a shield so that companies aren’t held liable for everything posted on a site, and it’s got a sword which, in effect, gives companies protection when they moderate content, when they take down slime and filth and lies. Today shows that Donald Trump is willing to mug the First Amendment because he wants to force companies to host his lies about vote by mail. And I have been warning for years now that the Trump administration was going to try to use this law I wrote, in order to chill free speech and then bully companies to give him what he wants.
Notarianni: The president has been saying that these tech companies are censoring conservatives when they do things like mark his tweets as being wrong on the facts. I’m guessing you disagree with that, though. Why is that?
Wyden: There just is no evidence of that — this idea that somehow conservatives are being discriminated against. What is really striking is, you have all of these far-right politicians saying that the government should take control of private companies and dictate, as the president wants to do, exactly how they operate.
I understand that what they’d like to do is engage in something that’ll be popular with the far-right base. But even the Koch brothers, who are very, very conservative, think that this is a violation of the kind of speech that we need to have in this country, which is free and open debate.
Notarianni: Is this executive order going to have any practical impact?
Wyden: The president basically thinks he is above the law. We see that with inspector generals. We see that in all kinds of areas. And that’s been a tale about his administration. I don’t think he’s going to be able to sell this idea that would chill speech in such an unprecedented way. But for somebody who consistently believes he’s above the law, he’s sure going to try.
Notarianni: There has been a lot of concern in recent years about companies like Twitter and Facebook and the responsibility that they have — to be able to keep track of the truth of what’s being put out on their platforms and to hold people accountable if they’re spreading lies. What role do you think that social media companies should have at this point of double checking the veracity of what they’re publishing?
Wyden: Efforts to erode the law I wrote will only make online content more likely to be false and dangerous. The legislation I wrote gives companies legal authority to go out and moderate. If somebody, for example says the election is on Saturday when it’s on Tuesday, that law provides protection when they take action to protect the community.
Notarianni: Do you think the president should even be on Twitter?
Wyden: I believe that everyone should have a chance to state their case.
The president always talks about neutrality. He says, “Oh, I don’t think things are neutral on social media.”
The law that I wrote, that has done so much to create these kinds of communication opportunities, says nothing about neutrality. There are conservatives sites — conservatives can be attracted to that. There’s progressive sites — progressives can be attracted to that. This law is set up to give everybody in America the opportunity to exercise the rights under the First Amendment.
The founding fathers, by the way, thought that the First Amendment was actually almost more important than government itself.
And (the Communications Decency Act) strikes a balance by saying that a social media platform, say a small company in Oregon, won’t be held liable personally for everything that’s posted on their site, but they do have an obligation to moderate content.
Notarianni: That’s U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat. Sen. Wyden, thanks for being here.
Wyden: Thanks for having me.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. Use the audio player above to hear the full discussion.