Commentary: How “Niceley” to Advocate Nonsense

March 4, 2021 4:00 am
Tennessee State Capitol (Photograph: John Partipilo)

Tennessee State Capitol (Photograph: John Partipilo)

Few legislators are as unintentionally funny as Tennessee’s Frank Niceley.  He’s a farmer from Strawberry Plains whose state senate district sprawls across Claiborne, Grainger, Hancock, Hawkins, Jefferson and Union counties.  The Republican Niceley was elected to the state house in 2004 and moved up to the State Senate after the 2012 election.  His career has included joining the Obama “birther” lawsuit, and falsely asserting the lion’s share of vouchers in Florida were going to Muslim schools.  He opposed making cock fighting a felony because it’s a “cultural tradition.”

Niceley turned 74 on Wednesday and shows no signs of slowing down.  His latest crusade is joining the right-wing backlash against social media firms like Facebook and Twitter.  He has introduced into the current session SB 0695, a bill to prohibit social media platforms from putting in their contracts any provision for the provider to limit or remove political or religious speech.

Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Shortly after the January 6 radical-right assault on the U.S. Capitol, Twitter purged more than 70,000 accounts associated with the debunked QAnon conspiracy theories.  Facebook had acted in early October against QAnon, removing Facebook pages, groups, and Instagram accounts.  Facebook declared it needed to enforce its “militarized social movements” policy so the group did not organize via the firm’s platforms.

Republicans usually proclaim the sanctity of business contracts and bellow about a hands-off approach to business, but apparently none of that applies when a business acts against hate groups, militarized sedition advocates, or disinformation purveyors.  Or maybe their outrage just flips when the group in question may offer some temporary political benefit for Donald Trump.

Niceley also has sponsored SB 1219.  Its thumbnail legislative description is, “As introduced, makes removing or censoring a political candidate or user from a social media platform of a technology corporation based on speech otherwise protected by the First Amendment in a public forum an unfair and deceptive act under the Consumer Protection Act of 1977.”

Trump-advocate Niceley clearly has the former president on his mind.  Let us recall Twitter permanently banned Trump in the bloody aftermath of the Capitol insurrection based on “the risk of further incitement of violence.”  All social and traditional media had trouble keeping pace with Trump’s deluge of lies, as well.  The Washington Post fact checker tallied 30,573 false or misleading Trump claims during his term.   The online analytics firm Zignal Labs calculated that online misinformation about election fraud plummeted 73% after several social media sites removed Trump and suspended some key allies.

Niceley apparently would like to see those lies continuing to slosh easily around the internet, and wants to do so in the name of consumer protection—talk about your Trump Derangement Syndrome.

Trolls from Russian disinformation efforts, home-grown conspiracy advocates, and Trump devotees unwilling to accept reality always can find a home somewhere online.  The extremist and conspiracy-laden site Parler, for example, ironically found hosting via a Russian-owned web cybersecurity service.  Thus, Niceley’s bills are both malicious and unnecessary—not to mention inviting a lawsuit.  As many others have noted, our legislative culture warriors these days seems more interested in passing lawsuits than legislation.

Perhaps the best advice for Frank Niceley comes from the character Nicely Nicely Johnson from the musical Guys and Dolls, played with aplomb both on Broadway and in the film by Stubby Kaye.  He sang “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”

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Mark Harmon
Mark Harmon

Mark D. Harmon is a professor of journalism and electronic media at the University of Tennessee.