Biased tweets? Politically-gridlocked civil rights commission squabbles over what to share with public.

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  • The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ overall goals are to “keep the public apprised of historic and current civil rights issues,” including routinely posting to social media.
  • Republican Stephen Gilchrist proposed public information only be shared if it receives a majority vote. Democrat Michael Yaki accused him of attempting to “put a muzzle on history.”

Conservative members of a federal civil rights commission pushed Friday for changes to how the agency operates that would greatly limit its dissemination of information on historic and current civil rights issues.

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The proposed amendments by Commissioner Stephen Gilchrist, a Republican appointed by former President Donald Trump in 2020, were to change the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ strategic plan so that any public information – on social media or elsewhere – would first need to receive a majority vote from its members.

The suggestion was met with vehement pushback from Commissioner Michael Yaki, a Democrat, who argued that “the history of civil rights in this country are not subject to majority rule,” citing examples of historical events such as the Montgomery bus boycott, Rosa Parks, or the March on Washington.

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“Those are things that have happened,” Yaki said. “To say that only those things approved by a majority of the commission get to see the light of day is to essentially put a muzzle on history and put a muzzle on what this commission is supposed to do.”

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ overall goals are to “keep the public apprised of historic and current civil rights issues,” including routinely posting to social media. But at least one instigating cause of concern were problematic tweets, said Commissioner Gail Heriot, an Independent, who seconded the motion. She did not provide any examples of those tweets at the commission’s monthly meeting Friday.

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“We’re talking theoretically and in concept right now, because we don’t have before us any actual examples of what needs to be fixed,” said Commission Chair Norma Cantú.

While the effort failed by a 4-3 vote after one Republican commissioner stepped out of the meeting, it showcases the ideological split within the independent bipartisan agency.

Since the latter portion of 2020, the commission has faced political gridlock, with a 4-4 deadlock that led to the death of a report on a 1 ½-year-long study examining the impact of COVID-19 on minority voting rights, simply because a majority could not agree to its release.

60% OF PEOPLE AWAITING TRIAL CAN’T AFFORD BAIL: Civil rights agency can’t agree on reform

It has also led to two reports that failed to pass on findings and recommendations for policy action by the president or Congress, a key part of the commission’s role. The first report was on racial disparities in maternal health and the second on the civil rights implications of cash bail, released Thursday.

In an email Friday to USA TODAY, Heriot detailed her concern that “social media comments made on behalf of the commission are typically one-sided and often not the considered views of the commission as a whole.”

“Sometimes those comments have been highly partisan,” said Heriot, who was appointed to the commission on the recommendation of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

One example she cited was a May 25 tweet that read: “Today we honor George Floyd as we reflect on the anniversary of his death, reminding us the need to address police use of force continues.” It included a link to a 2018 report on civil rights and policing practices and a CNN article on the anniversary.

“While I suspect all the Commission members (and all our state advisory committee members) would extend their condolences to George Floyd’s family, at no time have they voted in their official capacity to honor him,” she wrote in the email.

In another example, Heriot provided a tweet from National Agriculture Day last March that read: “It is an important day to not only celebrate farmers across America, but to remember that disparity still persists for Black farmers in the U.S.” The tweet linked to a 1965 report by the agency as well as an online agriculture news site article.

Heriot said that she believed the commission hasn’t dealt with this issue since 1965 and had not arrived at a view as to whether a “disparity still persists for Black farmers.” She added, “If such a disparity exists, the Commission has not studied the causes of it.”

The commission’s staff director, Mauro Morales, who was appointed by then-President Barack Obama, reviews content that will be disseminated to the public. He said Friday that he had been informed of concerns about “bias of our social media,” but when he asked commissioners for an example, he received none.

“These amendments are a solution looking for a problem,” Morales said. “Part of our clearinghouse responsibilities are to report on historical events.” He said the agency released a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., on the recent federal holiday and included a link to a report on hate crimes.

“That’s how we use our social media,” he told the commissioners. “It’s never to defame and degrade, it’s never to push any kind of political viewpoint … We don’t have any bias and, if we ever do, please point it out to me and we will rescind it and we will change it.”

Gilchrist did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

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