Free speech and the American right

The firing of Juan Williams from NPR has created a powerful rhetorical tool for US conservatives. The assertion that intolerance of dissent is a defining feature of left-liberalism is now being promoted by the right-wing echo chamber with a rather predictable ferocity. Perhaps now is an appropriate

time to remind people why American right-wing personalities cannot be taken seriously in their new-found zeal for freedom of speech.

The case of former CNN Middle East news editor Octavia Nasr makes for an apt comparison. She expressed her condolences for the death of influential Lebanese cleric Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah–not on the job–but through her personal Twitter feed. Fadlallah was well beloved by the Shiite Muslim world and was respected by  the US-backed Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki. Right-wing agitators quickly labeled Fadlallah a “spiritual leader” to Hezbollah and Nasr a terrorist sympathizer by extension. Nasr retracted her Tweet and said that her respect for the late cleric was based on his support for women’s rights and progressive social views. Despite this explanation and the fact that her views were expressed on Twitter instead of her work, she was promptly fired–much to the delight of the same commentators now mourning for Juan Williams.

While there are many other cases of journalists losing their jobs due to perceived patriotic incorrectness, it is perhaps more enlightening to focus on examples of the conservative movement’s position towards free speech and government mandated censorship:

  • Feb. 2009: A remarkable editorial appeared on the pages of the conservative Washington Times, entitled “Yes, we need censorship.” The piece openly advocated government censorship of news content and even entertainment. It pined for the WWII-era during which “a federal Office of Censorship was created to review and if necessary censor any criticism of the morale of U.S. forces, or any communication that might bring aid or comfort to the enemy” and “anti-war films were all but unheard of, since the government simply would not allow them.”
  • Feb. 2006: While citing criticisms of the Iraq War and the Bush administration made by prominent Democrats, columnist Ben Shapiro suggested that Republicans enact legislation to “prosecute sedition” and made the absurd claim that silencing critics of American wars is okay because anti-war views were censored in during previous conflicts. Most posters on the FreeRepublic forums–who today make up ludicrous conspiracy theories about President Obama and George Soros repressing free speech–agreed with Shapiro’s proposal with only a few members dissenting on the basis that such legislation could be used by future Democratic presidents to prosecute conservative opponents. One particularly disturbing comment called for executing Al Gore over comments he made concerning the mistreatment of Arab prisoners: “Hang this traitor. And to think he was almost our President!!!!!!!!”
  • Jun. 2005: Conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly once said on his radio show that “any American that undermines” the Iraq War or the War on Terror was a traitor and that the “clowns” at the liberal Air America station should be incarcerated for “undermining everything,” going as far as saying the FBI should be sent in to put them “in chains.”
  • Nov. 2006: At an awards banquet in Manchester, NH, Newt Gingrich said that America must re-examine the First Amendment and that the country may require a “different set of rules” in order to hinder terrorist propaganda and recruitment. “We need to get ahead of the curve before we actually lose a city, which I think could happen in the next decade” he said. He indicated his stance on due process rights when discussing the need to distinguish between terrorist speech and non-terrorist speech in a subsequent interview. He claimed that “if you give me any signal in the age of terrorism that you’re a terrorist, I’d say the burden of proof was on you.” It is interesting to note that the banquet was named the Nackey S. Loeb First Amendment Award Dinner. The New Hampshire Union Leader claimed that the banquet “fetes people and organizations that stand up for freedom of speech.”
  • Oct. 2001: Office of Legal Counsel attorney John Yoo issued a memo in which he asserted not only the right of the president to deploy the military on American soil and ignore the Fourth Amendment, but the right to restrict free speech as well. As he put it: “First Amendment speech and press rights may also be subordinated to the overriding need to wage war successfully.”

Many more examples of similar strains of thought can be found here and here.

The most recent case of open right-wing disdain for free speech rights can be found in a report (large PDF) released by a group of conservative commentators and ex-US government officials (previously discussed by me here). Among other things, the report explicitly advocates banning Muslims “from holding positions of trust in federal, state, or local governments or the armed forces of the United States” if they “espouse or support” sharia law. It equates advocacy of sharia with sedition and recommends prosecuting it as such. The report also talks of banning immigration to the US by Muslims who adhere to sharia. A brief section of the report under the sub-header “Lessons from the Cold War” is worth quoting from at length:

There is a loose analogy to the distinctions we made in the Cold War. There was general unanimity that we needed to deal effectively with any potential violent aggression by the chief communist power, the Soviet Union, and we readily maintained a sizeable military force and alliances to that end. But we had more difficulty as a nation deciding how to deal with non-violent domestic communists under foreign control, such as the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and the constellation of domestic and international front organizations under party control of Soviet ideological discipline. These latter, like their violent comrades-in-arms, had as their objective the establishment of a world-wide dictatorship of the proletariat.

Congress, taking note of this objective, at first tried making it illegal to be a communist in the U.S. by passing the Smith Act of 1940, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law. It enacted the McCarran-Walter Act (the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act), signed by President Harry S Truman, which authorized the exclusion and deportation of aliens on such ideological grounds as support for overthrowing the United States government. The government took a number of other steps with regard to domestic nonviolent supporters of the proposition that our Constitution should be replaced by a dictatorship, including: being required to register with the government and forgo government service. In addition, their organization, the Communist Party of the United States of America was penetrated by large numbers of FBI agents. As a nation we made some mistakes in this process, but in the end it worked reasonably well to protect American democracy against Nazi and Soviet ideological penetration.

Beginning in the 1960s, however, the Supreme Court drastically reinterpreted the First Amendment, gradually extending the original guarantee of American citizens’ right to engage in political speech, to include a constitutional protection to (a) subversive speech that could be construed as “advocacy,” rather than incitement to imminent lawlessness, and (b) the speech of non-Americans. Bowing to elite opinion, which scoffed at fears of communist penetration of our government and institutions, Congress (in such legislation as the 1965 Immigration Act, the 1978 McGovern Amendment, the 1989 Moynihan-Frank Amendment, and the 1990 Immigration Act) gutted the statutory basis for excluding and deporting individuals based on ideological beliefs, regardless of their subversive tendencies – at least in the absence of demonstrable ties to terrorism, espionage or sabotage (p. 9).

It should be clear to everyone that these are not the words of people who have a great concern for the preservation of free speech and political thought in trying times. These are the words of men who think they can save freedom by revoking it. Whatever one thinks of sharia law or Islam, Muslims should have the right to their express their views on government, religion and law just as any member of the Christian right does.

In conclusion, the right-wing is being very deceptive in trying to claim the mantle of free speech. If firing a man from a single company over his views is a sign of totalitarianism, then how exactly should one consider the prosecution, public blacklisting and deportation of individuals for their expressed beliefs?


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