Last year, when now-Senator Alex Padilla was California Secretary of State, he awarded a no-bid contract for “voter education” to a public relations firm that was so closely aligned with the Democratic Party that it identified itself as “Team Biden” on its website.
The $35 million contract given to SKDKnickerbocker was controversial. The state controller refused to pay it, pointing to the fact that there was no authorization in the budget for that spending.
But after Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Padilla to fill the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by Vice President Kamala Harris, the governor worked something out with the Legislature and retroactively authorized the $35 million outlay. The invoices were paid earlier this year.
And now we know a little more about what SKDKnickerbocker was doing for that money, thanks to a public records request by Judicial Watch and a lawsuit filed against Padilla and others by Center for American Liberty and the Dhillon Law Group.
Among other things, the PR firm was monitoring Twitter for comments that were critical of California’s Secretary of State.
These comments were flagged for Padilla’s office, and then state government employees would contact Twitter and ask the tech company to remove them. And Twitter did.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Rogan O’Handley, a Florida attorney and conservative commentator who was permanently suspended from Twitter in February 2021 after posting one last snide tweet questioning the November election outcome.
O’Handley had built an audience of more than 440,000 Twitter followers, and to the extent his business relied on Twitter for promotion and distribution, the Twitter ban damaged his business.
Twitter effectively acted as an arm of the state government. It maintained a “partner portal” for government officials to use when they wanted content removed from the platform. That’s what happened to Rogan O’Handley.
As an example of how it worked, the lawsuit cites an email sent on December 30, 2019, from Padilla’s press secretary Sam Mahood to Twitter’s Kevin Kane. “Flagging the following tweet that I reported through the partner portal,” Mahood wrote, “We would like this tweet taken down ASAP to avoid the spread of election misinformation.”
“Thank you for reporting,” Kane responded the next day, “Tweet has been removed. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if there is anything else we can do.”
You’ll notice that in this process there is no contact with the person who posted the tweet that Padilla’s office characterized as misinformation. It doesn’t appear that Twitter independently verified the accuracy of the material. The Secretary of State’s office asked Twitter to take it down, and Twitter took it down.
You see the problem. This is not some mechanism to prevent foreign governments from establishing fake accounts to game Twitter’s system and promote false information. This is a mechanism enabling elected officials like Alex Padilla to censor online speech from political opponents and critics.
In 2018, then-Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 3075, which created an office within the Secretary of State’s office to “monitor and counteract false or misleading information regarding the electoral process that is published online or on other platforms and that may suppress voter participation or cause confusion and disruption of the orderly and secure administration of elections.”
This “Office of Elections Cybersecurity” promptly established working relationships with social media companies. And in 2020, your tax dollars paid for government workers to coordinate with a Biden-aligned public relations firm to identify online comments that they disliked, believed to be untrue, or considered misleading.
Comments critical of the government, state or federal, are protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government has no power to censor them. But citing “security,” government employees reported the comments to social media companies and asked those companies to remove them. In O’Handley’s case, Twitter also removed the individual making the comments.
It is easy to see how the mechanism used against O’Handley and others can be used to silence dissent in general. Whether the topic is election integrity, COVID-19, climate science, critical race theory or any other public policy controversy, government-directed censorship of selected facts, opinions and political figures is an express lane to totalitarianism.
For everybody’s security, let’s get off this road at the next exit.
Susan Shelley is an editorial writer and columnist for the Southern California News Group. [email protected] Twitter: @Susan_Shelley
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