EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — The Texas Legislature was busy at work this week to pass policies that lawmakers say will benefit vulnerable populations targeted by different forms of violence.
Two pieces of legislation by Texas State Sen. Cesar Blanco were approved that — if passed — will protect vulnerable populations by mitigating hate speech online, while the other will protect soldiers in Texas from military sexual assault.
While Texas hosts the most military forces in the country, the Texas Legislature doesn’t have jurisdiction of the U.S. military in the state.
“One of the most common suggestions we heard was the need to codify independent-reporting options and dedicated investigation options outside the military so that crimes can be investigated to the fullest extent of the law,” Blanco told KTSM 9 News.
Senate Bill 623, authored by Blanco, seeks to enhance and expand pathways to justice for survivors of military sexual assault. For example, if passed, SB 623 would implement a third-party sexual assault coordinator that is independent from the military and would work with state law enforcement entities.
“My bill creates a third-party criminal investigator within the Texas Rangers under DPS,” said Blanco.
The coordinator would serve as a survivors’ advocate by providing services like directing survivors to resources and notifying them of their rights, receive reports and other pertinent documents and relaying cases to the Texas Rangers for an independent investigation.
SB 623 was approved by the Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs and Border Security on Tuesday, following the circumstances surrounding Pfc. Vanessa Guillen’s death and disappearance in April 2020.
“Sadly, her untimely death shed light on how the system fails to protect our heroes,” said Blanco. “Overall, I think this is going to help survivors and victims of sexual assault within the Texas military forces.”
In addition to combatting military sexual assault, Blanco penned an amendment to address online hate speech.
Senate Bill 12 was written by Sen. Bryan Hughes and is designed to project First Amendment speech on social media sites. Blanco’s amendment ensures that social media companies may prohibit and remove posts with hate speech that can incite violence.
“My amendment to this bill says that expressions or posts that directly incite criminal activity or consist of explicit threats of violence toward certain people or groups because of their race, because of the color of their skin, because of their disability or religion or their national origin or ancestry, age or sex, they’re all protected under this bill,” said Blanco.
A March report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence repeatedly cites social media and other websites as an important method by which domestic violent extremists disseminate materials, achieve radicalization and mobilize for violence.
Moreover, the report notes the rise of racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists.
The authority of social media companies to monitor and remove posts containing hate speech or incite criminal activity is a controversial topic that raises the question of where the line is drawn that distinguishes hate speech from free — protected — speech.
Digital platforms can be used for tools to radicalize, recruit, inspire and enable communication between terrorists, according to the Texas Domestic Terrorism Threat Assessment, which was published by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) in January 2020.
Blanco cites alleged Cielo Vista Walmart shooter Patrick Crusius’ hate-filled manifesto published online prior to the attack that killed 23 El Pasoans and wounded many more.
“This type of speech is not protected under the first amendment based on the established case law and the amendment is consistent with our own state hate speech laws,” said Blanco.
Ultimately, the work for Blanco is about protecting people from violence by challenging systems that have traditionally been slow to pursue justice, which is often rarely achieved.
“It’s important for El Pasoans to know that we’re fighting for them,” said Blanco, “that we’re protecting our community and that people are going to be held accountable.”