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Where are Roger Marshall, Josh Hawley when Big Tech blocks free speech close to home? | Opinion

USA Today Network file photos

Need a handy villain? Big Tech will fill the bill, almost every time.

That’s certainly the case when it comes to high-profile Republicans in Kansas and Missouri. Senators like Roger Marshall and Josh Hawley love to take their shots at Silicon Valley. Why? Because they perceive it as being anti-conservative and anti-Republican.

Marshall, for example, started his Senate career in 2021 with a Washington Examiner op-ed blasting social media companies for silencing Donald Trump in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.

So unfair of them, Marshall said. Even Orwellian.

Tech companies like Google and Twitter are “serving as Big Brother through the censorship and surveillance of conservative voices they and their political allies in Congress don’t agree with,” the then-new senator wrote.

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That sounds pretty bad.

Hawley, too, loves to pick on tech companies. He’s most famous right now for his crusade against TikTok, ostensibly for its connections to China. But he’s also fond of taking shots at American companies.

In January, for example, he argued for recent laws — passed in Florida and Texas — that prevent services such as Facebook and Elon Musk’s X from blocking users whose viewpoints they don’t like. Never mind that traditional readings of the First Amendment allow private companies to choose what they will and won’t publish.

“All they care about,” Hawley said of the tech companies, “is preserving their ability to control speech and censor at will.”

That sounds pretty bad, too.

So you would think that if an obvious example of Big Tech censorship happened right in their own back yard, folks like Marshall and Hawley would jump at the opportunity to make political hay, right?

Maybe not.

Last week, Facebook temporarily silenced The Kansas Reflector, a nonprofit news outlet that reports on Sunflower State politics. Officials from Meta, Facebook’s parent company, tried to explain away the whole thing as a technical snafu, an algorithmic problem that they were racing to fix.

And perhaps that’s true. It’s also true that the snafu occurred at precisely the same moment The Reflector attempted to post a new opinion piece … criticizing Facebook.

That’s a pretty big coincidence.

It wasn’t just The Reflector that was affected, though. On Friday, media columnist Marisa Kabas posted The Reflector column on her own website, The Handbasket — under the headline “Here’s the column that Meta doesn’t want you to see” — and, oddly enough, Facebook started blocking all links to that site as well.

Which is an even bigger coincidence.

That sure seems like the perfect opportunity for high-profile politicians eager to buff their free speech, anti-Big Tech credentials to start shouting to the rooftops, right? Especially when it’s a local story drawing national headlines — man, that’s got to be the sweet spot for a senator (or opinion columnist) looking to get attention.

But no. As far as I can tell, there have been no social media posts, no op-eds, no public expressions of concern or anger by the Kansas-Missouri Big Tech Bashing Brigade.

It’s here that I’ll note that The Kansas Reflector is an outlet known for its tough reporting and thoughtful-but-sometimes-fiery left-of-center opinion writing. (Clay Wirestone, the site’s opinion editor, is a personal friend.) It doesn’t have a lot of sympathetic readers on the Republican side of the aisle.

You’d hate to think that made a difference.

Free speech is free speech, after all, whether it comes from your friends or enemies. And Big Tech’s domination of our discourse should be a concern to everybody, regardless of whether you think that domination serves Democratic or Republican interests.

Interestingly, The Reflector took a moment this week to note Facebook’s own free speech rights. “Meta may have the right to shut down or limit access to websites, as long as it complies with the law,” Wirestone wrote. “As a corporation, its commercial speech enjoys First Amendment rights.”

But, he noted: “Just because you have the right to do something doesn’t make it a smart decision.”

That’s how you can tell the authentic defenders of free speech from the charlatans. Real ones defend the rights of others, even when they differ on important issues. The fakes? They go silent in the biggest moments.

Joel Mathis is a regular Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle Opinion correspondent. He lives in Lawrence with his wife and son. Formerly a writer and editor at Kansas newspapers, he served nine years as a syndicated columnist.