“Free Speech and Social Media,” the first of the Policy Challenges for Iowa and the Nation discussion series, was held on Wednesday, September 22 at the Old Capitol Museum Senate Chamber. As an introduction, UI President Wilson spoke about the importance of events such as these on our campus. The event was livestreamed and recorded, as well, and can be viewed in its entirety below.
Todd Pettys, Law professor at the University of Iowa, was the first speaker of the evening, as well as the moderator for the discussion. Pettys talked about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and the First Amendment, and how policy and law overlap regarding these statutes.
Section 230 states, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Relating this to the First Amendment, Pettys continued that these two segments of policy work together to help protect distributors from content regulation laws.
Pettys then introduced the panel: Carl Szabo, Mike Davis, and Traci Griffith, who each spoke and answered the following questions: Who, if anyone, should control what’s allowed online? Should there be more regulation around how tech companies operate, specifically regarding Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act? How/does social media misinformation affect the public good?
Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel at NetChoice, was the first of the panel to speak. On behalf of the social media industry, Szabo described Section 230 as a “good Samaritan law” for the internet. This translates to distributors assuming no liability for passing on content, through a concept known as “conduit immunity.”
“Suits went against broadcasters, the platforms that showed [the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction], not the cable companies who carried it through their pipes,” Szabo said.
Mike Davis, founder and president of the Internet Accountability Project, provided a conservative perspective for the discussion.
Davis’ two main concerns regarding free speech on social media included censorship of media and cancel culture. He asserted that “Big Tech” companies such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple are “today’s biggest proponents, enablers and enforcers” of these issues. “Because of their anti-trust amnesty and their Section 230 immunity, Big Tech monopolists have way too much power,” Davis said.
Explaining that these companies lack competition in technology and have found loopholes in the Sherman Act, Davis concluded with a proposal that more competition, not less, could help with issues of censorship and cancel culture.
The final presenter of the evening was Traci Griffith, associate professor at Simmons University, who provided a real-life perspective - the people using social media.
Griffith explained that lack of trust is the primary issue among the public. Referencing a statistic, she noted the public’s trust level of the media in 2016 was at an all-time high since the 2008 Recession; however, this trust level had “imploded” by 2018.
She went on to describe a timeline from 2008 to 2018, listing events and potential reasons why public trust in social media declined. Griffith’s concluding message was a call to action, stating that social media evolves so quickly, and its users need to evolve with it, “with an ethical understanding and a yearning to revive the truth.”
Following the presentations, Iowa Senators Amy Sinclair and Zach Wahls reacted to the discussion, providing their political perspectives on free speech on social media platforms.
Other events in the series include “The Future of the Democratic Party” on October 14 at the Levitt Center for University Advancement, and “The Future of the Republican Party” on November 10, back at the Old Capitol Museum Senate Chamber.