Senator’s post sparks outrage – and support – amid national debate on censorship

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NORTH SMITHFIELD/BURRILLVILLE – The decisions by several large tech companies to take action to limit certain types of speech following last week’s deadly riot in Washington, DC has drawn criticism from some – including one local state senator who’s social media post about the First Amendment has many in her district expressing outrage.

A Facebook post by Republican Sen. Jessica de la Cruz, of District 23 in Burrillville, North Smithfield and Glocester, on Saturday, Jan. 9 had nearly 450 comments this week – including several from other local political figures.

“These are trying times for the First Amendment,” de la Cruz wrote. “The wise and principled among us would benefit from the warning of our nation’s greatest president: ‘For if men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter, which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences, that can invite the consideration of mankind, reason is of no use to us; the freedom of speech may be taken away, and, dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the slaughter.'”

The post quoting President George Washington followed a riot at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6 that led to five deaths – and many of the de la Cruz’s commenters pointed to a lack of condemnation of the violent insurgence. At the time, Congress was attempting to certify the election of Joe Biden as the nation’s 46th president.

Trump and his political allies have been blamed for inciting the riot, and social media giants including Facebook and Twitter have permanently banned the outgoing president in response.

Amazon, meanwhile, suspended the web service of alternative social media site Parler over what the tech giant says is a lack of monitoring and removal of posts containing inflammatory rhetoric that encourage and incite violence.

Many of de la Cruz’s commentators pointed out that the First Amendment addresses Congress, and does not apply to private entities.

“The First Amendment means you can’t face *government* retaliation for your speech,” wrote Chris Simpkins, a North Smithfield resident who recently lost in a bid for Town Council. “We should be applauding the companies choosing to enforce the terms of service that their users agreed to when their platforms are being used to embolden dangerous attacks against our nation’s capitol. A disappointing take from our local leadership.”

“He has a podium in his house. He can speak,” said Melissa Flaherty a former member of both North Smithfield’s Town Council and School Committee. “The election has be duly verified by more than one legal body.”

“He is spreading lies. Inciting riots,” Flaherty added of Trump. “And offering his love and support to nazis, white supremacists, and armed militias! Are you a member of the Republican Party or the Trump cult?”

Others, supportive of de la Cruz, noted that the censoring of comments on the social media platforms has become increasingly common, referencing a “slippery slope,” of celebrating the suppression of divergent views.

“Quoting one of our founding fathers about one of our most basic God-given rights is never wrong,” wrote Kevin Wilson. “Whether anyone wants to read into this the current situation that applies, or not, any group or party that seeks to silence its opposition from the public forum does not respect the First Amendment.”

But the majority of verbal reactions toward the senator this week were negative.

“I just read a beautiful biography of Washington. It turns out the angriest Washington ever got was at those who used their platform to lie – Bache and Freneau, for example,” wrote Paul Jones, a current member of the North Smithfield School Committee. “I have to think he would be very supportive of some of the recent bans, and very critical of the actions of those who caused five deaths in the Capitol riot.”

The post also sparked criticism from the senator’s political opponent from the 2020 election. de la Cruz secured a second term in the November run for office, and has recently been named Minority Whip.

“It’s the same as if an insurrectionist president stood on a street corner brandishing a saber calling the fringes of society to battle against a perceived ruling class,” wrote Paul Roselli, president of the Burrillville Land Trust and de la Cruz’s recent Democratic challenger. “You are too young and inexperienced to know the difference between a private company, a publishing firm, a social media firm and even one branch of the government, and what the First Amendment really says: when you base your popularity on misinformation and fraudulent claims you do a disservice to your office.”

“I have no problems with Jessica’s stand as an individual, but as an elected official, that is where the problem begins,” Roselli added.

The post was also shared 157 times and “liked” 220 times. Forty seven people “loved,” the commentary and less than 20 more reacted via other reactions available on the social media platform – such as amused or angry.

Following hundreds of comments on the post, de la Cruz responded to her critics, pointing to a Twitter post in which she called the riot un-American and stated that was a, “lawless act that has no place in a civil and orderly society.”

“I was calling attention to the principle of freedom of speech that was codified in our First Amendment,” de la Cruz responded on Monday, saying the post was not about Trump. “America was and should remain a place where disagreement and dialogue can happen on open forums. This post demonstrates and celebrates that very liberty.”

“I also recognize that private companies have the right to have terms and services,” she continued. “But I also know several people who have been shut out of their accounts inexplicably. For the most part, these individuals were given no specific explanation as to which rule they may have violated.”

“I firmly believe that the antidote to bad speech is more speech. Allow the free market of ideas to flush out foolish and even harmful ideas while preserving the best ideas and argument,” de la Cruz said. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Pushing people into underground platforms will only deepen the divides in our communities and even our country.”

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