Should Free Speech Have Limits When It Comes to Terrorism?

“With an enemy committed to terrorism, the advocacy of terrorism — the threats, the words — are not mere dogma, or even calls to ‘action.’ They are themselves weapons — weapons of incitement and intimidation, often as effective in achieving their ends as would be firearms and explosives brandished openly.”  — Andrew C. McCarthy, columnist, author, and former federal prosecutor

In a recent column, Newt Gingrich took Congress to task for “passively allowing the American left to set the focus for responding to the Orlando attack.” As we have seen over the past few days, many Democrats and the MSM have bent over backward to avoid admitting that the real problem is Islamic supremacist terrorism, instead blaming guns, the NRA, Republicans, even (somehow) Christians. In the Washington Times piece, Gingrich then went on to examine a few facts about the recent terrorist attacks in Orlando, France, and the Philippines — each with a different kind of weapon, btw. After quoting CIA Director John Brennan on the health and tactics of ISIS, he advised that some serious assessment by Congress is required re the “Long War”. I want to focus briefly on his third recommendation:

“[W]e have to develop new laws for American citizens who want to wage war against America. For example:

  • nyt- orlando terrorist shootingsAmericans who pledge loyalty to ISIS and other Islamic supremacist movements are engaging in treason and should lose their citizenship.
  • Americans who learn about potential terrorist attacks should be charged as accomplices if they fail to turn in the plotter.
  • Supporting Islamic supremacist groups overseas (as the Orlando killer’s father does) should lead to being put on a watch list and other restrictions, subject to judicial review.
  • Islamic supremacist propaganda should be outlawed and its possession should be a criminal offense. Limits on the First Amendment in wartime are unavoidable, and we are at war. I first made this point in 2006, and it is still true today.”

What do you think of this? Others have promoted similar legislation. I think they are reasonable actions to take, given the current state of world affairs and the strength and reach of ISIS (thanks largely to the foreign policy and strategies of the Obama administration). But, I think there may be some pushback from various quarters. I’m not sure where the most resistance will come from — Liberals, Libertarians, conservative Republicans, Constitutionalists — but some will be quite squeamish about restricting First Amendment rights of U.S. citizens, even of terrorists and their supporters.

Now, I want to turn to what Gingrich said in that 2006 article he mentioned, from when he was a Senior Fellow for the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). After referring to comments he made at a First Amendment rights-focused dinner, he wrote:

“I’ve heard from many Americans who understand the seriousness of the threat that faces us, Americans who believe as I do that free speech should not be an acceptable cover for people who are planning to kill other people who have inalienable rights of their own.

A small number of others have been quick to demagogue my remarks. Missing from the debate? Any reference to the very real threats that face Americans.

There was no mention of last week’s letter from Iranian leader Ahmadinejad that threatens to kill Americans in large numbers if we don’t submit to his demands.

There has been little attention drawn to any of the many websites dedicated to training and recruiting terrorists, including a recent one that promises to train terrorists “to use the Internet for the sake of jihad.”

No mention of efforts by terrorist groups like Hezbollah to build “franchises” among leftist, anti-globalization groups worldwide, especially in Latin America.

The fact is not all speech is permitted under the Constitution. The First Amendment does not protect lewd and libelous speech, and it should not — and cannot in 2006 [or 2016] — be used as a shield for murderers.”

My boy joined ISISGingrich is absolutely right. The reality is that today’s technology allows “speech” of all sorts to spread worldwide. As a still-relatively-free country, we generally balk at censorship. Indeed, though we have to keep reminding the political Left of this, the First Amendment was written to protect the rights of people — at least, citizens and legal residents — to say things that would be considered nasty or offensive by some who hear it. (After all, who needs to assure the right to say things everyone agrees with?) But, does that right extend to enabling terrorists — from within the nation or without, citizen or otherwise — to not only spread hate but direct others how to kill and maim others in violent acts?

We Constitution-minded conservatives are so used to defending First Amendment rights that we sometimes forget it is not holy writ or absolute moral law. It makes me nervous to say/write this, but there are times when the general rule of the F.A. can and perhaps should be bent or exceptions made, as long as it is in keeping with the larger spirit and intent of the Constitution (e.g., general welfare and security of the nation). And, of course, any actual changes must be enacted through the amendment process.

Gingrich continued with the following recommendations, much like the ones above from his current article:

“We need a serious dialogue — not knee-jerk hysteria — about the First Amendment, what it protects and what it should not protect. Here are a few baseline principles to consider.

We should be allowed to close down websites that recruit suicide bombers and provide instructions to indiscriminately kill civilians by suicide or other means, or advocate killing people from the West or the destruction of Western civilization;

We should propose a Geneva-like convention for fighting terrorism that makes very clear that those who would fight outside the rules of law, those who would use weapons of mass destruction and those who would target civilians are in fact subject to a totally different set of rules that allow us to protect civilization by defeating barbarism before it gains so much strength that it is truly horrendous. A subset of this convention should define the international rules of engagement on what activities will not be protected by free speech claims; and

We need an expeditious review of current domestic law to see what changes can be made within the protections of the First Amendment to ensure that free speech protection claims are not used to protect the advocacy of terrorism, violent conduct or the killing of innocents.”

Notice that part I italicized in the third paragraph? I truly hope it isn’t too late, already. I also wouldn’t count something like this getting very far under the current administration, who cannot even acknowledge the true threat. But, I am hopeful that a more conservative President — even Trump — would support and encourage a bipartisan effort in Congress to take Gingrich’s advice. This isn’t the only “serious dialogue” that needs to be had by Congress and the American people in general, as well as by our counterparts in other nations. But, hopefully, with the tragedies of Orlando, Paris, and other attacks fresh in our minds, it is one that most of us can largely agree on. With such policies and programs in place, maybe we can actually start to turn the tide of the advancing, brutal, and decidedly INtolerant, Islamist caliphate.

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