Eric Schmitt answers questions during a press conference after filing to run in the senate primaries in Missouri, on Feb. 22, 2022, in Jefferson City (Madeline Carter/Missouri Independent)
WASHINGTON – U.S. House Judiciary Committee Republicans decried what they described as a partisan “weaponization” of the federal government over issues of free speech during a highly contentious Thursday hearing surrounding a lawsuit filed by the Missouri attorney general’s office.
Democratic committee members objected strongly to the hearing as spreading “false narratives” and lies about the Biden administration and its interactions with social media platforms, and at one point attempted to adjourn, without success.
Conservative lawmakers took shots at what they alleged were public-private partnerships designed to censor certain information on social media, like discussions about the COVID-19 lab leak theory and the Hunter Biden laptop controversy.
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The legislators slammed what they claimed is the Biden administration’s “extensive coordination” with tech companies to block misinformation as an attempt to infringe on constitutional freedoms.
“The government no longer pretends that censorship is limited to foreign disinformation, or even domestic misinformation,” said Republican Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, chair of the committee.
“Instead, censorship extends to the so-called mal-information. In other words, true information that is supposedly misleading, and conflicts with the censors’ preferred narrative. And that is the most dangerous — and frankly, the most frightening — thing of all. Censorship isn’t about truth. It’s about power.”
The suit, Louisiana and Missouri v. Biden, was filed in May 2022 by two GOP witnesses at the hearing, Missouri U.S. Sen. Eric Schmitt — prior to his election to the Senate, when he was Missouri’s attorney general — and Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry.
Besides the two states, named plaintiffs in the lawsuit include anti-vaccine activists and conspiracy theorists who have faced bans on social media platforms.
The lawsuit alleges that the Biden administration “coerced social media companies to censor disfavored speech.”
Committee Democrats argued the real problem with weaponization of the federal government is prioritizing hearings to broadcast partisan political talking points over resolving the broader problems facing America, like the debt limit and gun violence.
They added that social media algorithms tend to amplify conservative voices, and that efforts to address Republicans’ concerns will only make Americans more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and “false narratives.”
“That’s the real reason we’re here,” said House Del. Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands, ranking member of the committee.
“Republicans know that these are false narratives, and they know that the Americans know the truth. So they’re grasping for a way to spin the truth. And how do you do that? You tell an untruth, a lie. Misinformation over and over and over and over and over again. And eventually people believe it.”
Democrats also repeatedly denounced the decorum and leadership in the hearing, attempting to adjourn the session because, they said, Jordan dismissed witnesses without allowing cross-examination of claims.
GOP accusations of censorship
Hearing witnesses, including Schmitt and Landry, decried what they characterized as the Biden administration’s “Orwellian” attempts to suppress and censor “disfavored speech.”
“No matter what your political affiliation is, government censorship should concern everyone,” Schmitt said.
The former Missouri attorney general alleged that the Biden administration threatened legal consequences for platforms like Facebook by considering revocation of Section 230, and censoring the Hunter Biden laptop story. Section 230 refers to a portion of the Communications Decency Act which provides legal protections for social media platforms that post third-party content.
He added the lawsuit showed multiple federal agencies have been pressured to flag and censor large numbers of posts, with the support of “Big Tech” or social media companies. He did not offer specifics at the hearing but said documents in the lawsuit supported those claims.
“President Biden and his administration may lust for its own Ministry of Truth,” Schmitt said. “But I, along with millions of Americans, will never stop fighting for the God-given right to speak your mind.”
Landry said that social media unfairly “tipped the scales in Biden’s favor” by censoring the Hunter Biden laptop story, as well as anti-vaccine accounts like those of activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
He advocated for terminating jobs and retirement benefits of federal employees who have had any hand in censoring free speech.
“Know that the state of Louisiana and Missouri are fighting back against this vast government censorship in our federal courts today,” Landry said.
Schmitt and Landry departed immediately after their statements.
Democrats fought back against the testimony, claiming that the witnesses may be deceiving the public under oath.
“If we’re not going to have the ability to cross-examine, I would move to strike the testimony provided by Sen. Schmitt and Attorney General Landry,” said Democratic Massachusetts Rep. Stephen Lynch.
“You want to censor it, is it?” Jordan said. “You want to censor their testimony?”
“I want to strike it if we aren’t able to to probe the the veracity of their statements, the truthfulness of their statements,” Lynch said.
“We will get to your five minutes here when we get the five-minute deadline,” Jordan said.
“They’re not here,” Lynch interrupted. “They scurried away, with your complicity. In a country of 330 million people, you can’t find two people who would defend their statements.”
“If allowing them to leave is not weaponization of the federal government, I don’t know what is,” said Plaskett.
“This is a mockery and a disgrace,” Lynch said.
The Massachusetts lawmaker moved to adjourn the hearing, but the motion failed, 12-7.
Arguments over fraud, pandemic
After the vote to adjourn, Democrat and Republican members resumed fighting over the role of social media companies in spreading lies about election fraud and COVID-19.
John Sauer, the deputy attorney general for Louisiana who previously worked for Schmitt in Missouri, said the lawsuit shows substantive evidence of the Biden administration “orchestrating elaborate plots and deception to do platforms into censoring disfavored speech.”
Louisiana Republican Rep. Mike Johnson asked Sauer what the Biden administration’s, and Dr. Anthony Fauci’s, interest could have been in covering up the COVID-19 lab leak theory.
Sauer said that Fauci, a former chief White House medical adviser, had been an advocate for gain-of-function virology research in China dating back to 2014, and issued a “deceptive plot” to discredit the theory in an effort to save face, with the cooperation of Facebook executives.
Republican Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah asked Sauer if he saw a resemblance between the federal censorship effort under the Biden administration and the Stasi police force of East Germany.
“It’s a very close comparison,” Sauer said.
Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat, confronted Sauer over “weaponizing the government himself,” collaborating with the Republican Attorneys General Association to plan what the Trump administration could do if the former president lost the election. She said past Sunshine Law requests reveal the depth of collaboration, which would represent a violation of federal law.
“Approximately how many of these political meetings did you attend while in your office, and using state resources?” Wasserman Schultz asked. “Before answering, let me remind you your Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination do apply here if you need to use that.”
“None of the meetings I attended were political,” Sauer said. “I attended one meeting via Zoom that discussed legal issues only.”
Wasserman Schultz made a motion that the chair issue subpoenas to Sauer requesting any and all correspondence relating to political involvement in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol “and dark money groups while using state resources.”
The Florida congresswoman’s motion was tabled by a roll call vote of 10-7.
“I think we’ve made it very clear that the Republican majority has no instant interest in investigating true violations of the weaponization of government,” Wasserman Schultz said. “They just tabled a motion to demonstrate that.”
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