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How far can elected officials go when it comes to social media posts? A new committee may decide

On paper, the three-member panel is charged with examining "government censorship and conduct of state executive officials." But the announcement comes less than 24 hours after a new report on the internet that Hobbs used her position as secretary of state in 2020 to get Twitter — now X — to take down new responses critical of her 2017 post comparing supporters of Donald Trump to Nazis.

Toma, a Peoria Republican, tapped first-term state Rep. Alexander Kolodin (R-Scottsdale) to chair it. And Kolodin told Capitol Media Services called the timing "an interesting coincidence."

"We had been planning this stuff for months," he said

"Obviously, it's something that elected officials are tempted to engage in, regardless of whether they're Democrats or Republicans," Kolodin said. "So it's something that we want to make sure that we have the information that we need to really craft intelligent legislation that aims to protect the First Amendment rights of Arizonans in the digital age.

But Kolodin acknowledged that the report of Hobbs' activities may have helped spur Toma to agree to form the panel.

The report comes from Arizona Capitol Oversight which announced its formation last month with the goal of obtaining public records of government offices throughout the state. Brian Anderson lists himself as founder, citing his background as previously handling press and research for former Gov. Doug Ducey.

His first posting revolves around a post that Hobbs made in August 2017, while a member of the Senate, that Trump "has made it abundantly clear he's more interested in pandering to his neo-nazi [sic] base than being POTUS for all Americans."

What made all that relevant was Arizona Capitol Oversight finding a November 2020 message from Hobbs, sent from her official secretary of state account, asking Twitter to take action.

When Twitter asked for more information, Anderson reports that Hobbs wrote back — again from her official account — saying that "the alt-right got a hold of a 3-year-old tweet on my account and have been sending harassing, abusive, and threatening tweets and direct messages for the last 2 days."

Hobbs told Capitol Media Services on Friday she did nothing wrong.

"I, like any other person who is harassed on Twitter, reported that harassment through the proper channels and asked for them to follow their guidelines in terms of harassment," she said. "As you remember, I was having death threats, I was having armed protesters outside my house."

But Hobbs also was unapologetic about the original 2017 posting.

"I never tried to take down that tweet," she said. "I stand by that tweet. And that is not the issue."

The context, Hobbs said, was in the wake of comments by Trump following a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., which resulted in the death of one woman. At one point Trump, asked about the events, said "there were very fine people on both sides," though it also appears the former president condemned actions by Neo-nazis.

Hobbs said her posting was because "the president wouldn't condemn the people that were responsible for her death."

The governor also derided the decision by Toma to form a special panel.

"I'm glad we've solved water, the housing crisis, and fixed public education and have time for this sideshow," she said.

That wasn't the governor's first interaction with the social media giant.

Capitol Media Services previously reported that employees in the Secretary of State's Office also asked Twitter in 2021 to remove two posts having to do with allegations that the office had contracted with a private firm to set up a new voter database, a firm that the person making one of the posts claimed had a foreign contractor.

"These messages falsely assert that the voter registration system is owned and therefore operated by foreign actors," Hobbs press aide Murphy Hebert wrote to the Center for Internet Security, an organization that is a clearinghouse that elected officials across the country use to combat what they believe is misinformation. "This is an attempt to further undermine confidence in the election institution in Arizona."

Kelly Ward, then chair of the Arizona Republican Party called that improper.

"The First Amendment protects citizens’ speech from the government — not the other way around," she wrote in a complaint to then-Attorney General Mark Brnovich. There is no evidence Brnovich ever acted on the complaint.

And Anderson said he found evidence that Hebert, using her account at the Secretary of State's Office — and with a copy to Hobbs — unsuccessfully attempted to get Facebook to remove a post claiming that Kamala Harris was ineligible to serve as vice president Kolodin told Capitol Media Services the special panel is about more than Hobbs' activities.

"There has never been a really comprehensive legislative investigation into the way we are protecting or failing to protect the First Amendment in this new age of machine learning and neural networks and algorithms that decide what people are served online," he said. "It's something that we want to make sure that we have the information that we need to craft intelligent legislation that aims to protect the First Amendment rights of Arizonans in the digital age."

Yet the committee is charged only with investigating the activities of those in the executive branch.

"I don't think there's ever been any reports that the Legislature has been trying to decide or curate or censor online speech," Kolodin responded, offering to add that to the panel's task if someone presents such information.

But even before any hearings, the Scottsdale Republican is questioning Hobbs' claim that she had a right to file a complaint with Twitter about the 2020 postings.

"There comes a point where it crosses the line into state action," Kolodin said. "And part of what this committee is going to investigate is where is that point."

Still, Kolodin said, he does not think it's proper for statewide officials, using their official accounts and their taxpayer funded staff, to make such requests.

"That, to me, crosses the line from, 'I'm a person who is aggrieved personally' to now 'I'm asking you to do this on behalf of the state' which, of course, always carries with it, implied carrots and sticks," he said.

"Elected officials, especially statewide officials, very powerful people," Kolodin continued. "They can make life nice or not so nice for big corporations."

Anyway, he said, elected officials understand when they run for office that "people would say mean things" and they can't use the power of government to shut that down.

And what about death threats?

"Making a death threat on an elected official is super-duper illegal," Kolodin said.

"But now, you're taking speech that is constitutionally protected and saying 'Because of this speech, something illegal happened,' " he continued, saying it's proper to act against only the person making the threat, not others whose comments may have incited that threat.

Kolodin said this isn't just an Arizona issue.

He noted that a federal judge last month barred several federal agencies and officials in the Biden administration from contacting social media companies to get them to remove what they said was misinformation about the COVID vaccine or information that could affect elections.

"The United States government seems to have assumed a role similar to an Orwellian 'Ministry of Truth,'" wrote Judge Terry Doughty. He enjoined numerous federal officials and agencies from having any contact with social media platforms to discourage or removed speech protected by the First Amendment.

State lawmakers dabbled earlier this year in the relationship between government and social media companies over First Amendment rights. But in that case, the aim by Sen. Wendy Rogers was to give politicians special protections, spelling out in state law that once people become candidates for any public office, they cannot have their posting rights taken away — pretty much no matter what they say, truthful or otherwise.

The measure by the Flagstaff Republican was vetoed by Hobbs who said the bill "does not attempt to solve any of the real problems social media platforms create."