Capitol Comments: Should state government ‘thought police’ keep tabs on your conversations, social media?

Published 8:45 pm Friday, May 5, 2023

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Capitol Comments by Peggy Bennett

Peggy Bennett

Recently, Minnesota House Democrats approved their version of the judiciary/public safety finance omnibus bill. The plan would fund programs in these areas for the next two years. While it contained some good provisions, there were far more measures that were incredibly bad, and it was approved with no support from Republicans and bipartisan opposition.

First, some of the good: the bill created crimes for organized retail theft, labor trafficking resulting in death, and creating deep fake technology with an intent to deceive. It also strengthened the penalty targeting drug dealers for the illegal sale and possession of fentanyl, a drug that has killed far too many in all corners of our state, sadly including young people right here in our hometowns. This is something I’ve long pushed for and am happy to see it included.

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Unfortunately, the bad provisions in this bill far outweigh the good and are extremely troubling. It literally gives a “get out of jail free” card for criminals. It would put felons back on the streets by allowing criminals to serve only half of their prison sentence or probation if they complete Department of Corrections programming. This includes those convicted of violent crimes including manslaughter, rape, kidnapping, assault or domestic assault. The bill also senselessly provides over $100 million to nonprofits with little accountability rather than sending that money directly to law enforcement to help fight crime.

It also includes two significant Democrat gun control measures that will do nothing to stop violent crime but will greatly impact the rights of law-abiding citizens. Like you, I am deeply troubled at the huge increase in violence in our state, and my heart breaks for every suicide. But I want to do things that work. Neither of these gun provisions will get to the root issues and will not solve these problems.

A hugely troubling component in this bill is an attack on the First Amendment rights of Minnesotans with a “thought police” provision.

Under this House Democrat plan, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights would send employees into communities to solicit “bias incidences” and collect data on individual speech that is not criminal but believed by someone to be biased and concerning.

In other words, if someone is offended by something you said and believed it was biased, they could then claim your speech was biased and would legitimately be able to report you to a state agency, which could then keep that file on record.

Specifically, it forms policies to solicit, receive and compile reports from community organizations, school districts and individuals regarding incidents a community member believes are motivated by bias. That data will be stored and analyzed and could be sought after by the state — an actual government bias registry.

To give you an idea of the sorts of things that people could consider “biased,” I’ll share with you what was discussed on the House floor. A question was asked of the bill author if a written article claiming or arguing that COVID-19 is a Chinese bio-weapon that leaked from a lab in Wuhan should be put in the bias registry. The answer was it can be considered a hate or bias incident.

The bill author was then asked if someone wearing an “I love J.K. Rowling” shirt could also be put on the bias registry, and she stated that circumstance would be something for lawyers to decide.

Think about that for a minute. Giving lawyers the opportunity to determine your intent for simply wearing a shirt that someone didn’t like.

Again, this isn’t about speech that was made in relation to a hate crime or violent activity. This references non-criminal conversations or writings that someone perceives to be biased and voluntarily reports to state government because they didn’t like it.

Many of us have sarcastically referenced “Big Brother is watching you” over the years, but my goodness how can anyone see this as anything other than an attempt to stifle your First Amendment rights? Share the wrong view and the wrong person hears or reads it, then face the threat of being reported and put on the government’s bias registry.

There is no room in this country for hate speech. That said, the state of Minnesota should also not be in the business of policing your freedom to speak freely and keeping tabs on your musings that do not have violent or criminal undertones.

Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, is the District 23A representative.