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OPINION

The RESTRICT Act Gives Up Nearly All Notions of Checks and Balances

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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AP Photo/Anjum Naveed

Beginning in the 19th century, snake oil salesmen falsely claimed their elixirs and tonics could treat a wide array of ailments. In the 21st century, a group of senators are hawking a bill they assert can cure the oh-so-many maladies caused by using the social media app, TikTok. Just like snake oil salesmen of the past, these Senators may talk a good game, but their antidote is far worse than any purported affliction.

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To address our nation’s hysteria over dance videos, more than twenty Senators, both Republican and Democrat, support the RESTRICT Act. They tell us that this bill will help rein in the dastardly threat that comes from the Chinese government supposedly spying on silly videos made by American teenagers. Instead, it bestows an astonishing amount of power to the Executive branch in a manner that the Chinese Communist Party would approve of. As Tucker Carlson correctly observed, “this is not an effort to push back against China. It’s part of a strategy to make America much more like China.”

The RESTRICT Act eschews almost all notions of checks and balances by granting a vast amount of power to the Executive branch to intervene in all kinds of economic transactions. It would effectively allow the Secretary of Commerce to become the Commissar of Commerce. 

The bill’s application is far from limited to Tiktok or other internet-based companies. The third section of the bill would enable the Secretary of Commerce to investigate any business that is in any way subject to the jurisdiction of a foreign adversary to determine if its transactions “pose an undue or unacceptable risk to the national security of the United States.” 

Though the bill already designates China, Russia, Venezuela, Iran, and Cuba as foreign adversaries, the RESTRICT Act also empowers the Secretary of Commerce to unilaterally add any other country to this official enemies list. 

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We already know how these powers could be abused by our government to further the political agenda of the political class. Instead of engaging social media sites to do their anti-free speech dirty work, the RESTRICT Act would empower federal officials to directly prevent media outlets like the New York Post from posting stories like the one about Hunter Biden’s laptop. 

That’s because, under the RESTRICT Act, the federal government is authorized to censor any conceivable online communication. The amount of power invested in the government is so broad, that all the Secretary of Commerce would have to do is assert that any undesirable comment furthers a foreign adversary’s interest that could influence a federal election. In other words, to rid social media of any disagreeable voices, the RESTRICT Act allows the Executive Branch to dissolve the First Amendment so long as it utters the magic words of “national security.” 

To wit, in October 2020, a host of former high-ranking intelligence and national security officials, acting at the behest of now Secretary of State Antony Blinken, issued a statement falsely insinuating that the Hunter Biden laptop story was part of a Russian disinformation campaign to affect the 2020 election. This concerted effort to silence a story that might reflect poorly upon their preferred candidate resulted in social media companies, such as Twitter, prohibiting the story from being shared on their sites. It does not take much imagination to foresee a similar future scenario in which federal officials use the RESTRICT Act to stop the media from publishing critically important information under the guise of protecting us from foreign disinformation in an election.

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Even worse, anyone who violates or merely evades an order given by the Secretary of Commerce under the RESTRICT Act could go to prison for 20 years. Given the Biden Administration’s unprecedented censorship operations, including the creation of the Orwellian Disinformation Governance Board within the Department of Homeland Security, I would not want to be part of a politically disfavored business with this law on the books. 

A company that publicly disagreed with the President could find themselves on an official enemies list, censored, and imprisoned. Tucker Carlson was right on the money when he said the RESTRICT Act “is not about banning TikTok. This is about introducing flat out totalitarianism into our system.” 

My colleague, Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH), expressed concern that the RESTRICT Act may be creating “a PATRIOT Act for the digital age.” He’s right to be concerned. The RESTRICT Act’s proponents sweep an extraordinary amount of state power over commerce, communications, and technology. Today, they claim that those powers will only be used against foreign threats. But, just like the surveillance powers granted to the government after 9/11 were used against Americans and even President Trump, it will not be long before the RESTRICT Act’s powers are abused to target political opponents. 

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Don’t buy what the fear peddlers are selling. Their prescription of immense government power to ban speech they don’t like will result in the loss of free expression and association. The RESTRICT Act is not a magic cure-all, but rather a poison that threatens the freedoms protected by the First Amendment.

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