Last month, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich addressed an audience at an awards dinner held by the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications to honor defenders of the First Amendment. Oddly, Mr. Gingrich - who is eying a run at the White House in 2008 - took this occasion to advocate the curtailment of free speech as a weapon in the fight against terrorism:
And I want to suggest to you that right now we should be impaneling people to look seriously at a level of supervision that we would never dream of if it weren’t for the scale of threat...
This is a serious long term war, and it will inevitably lead us to want to know what is said in every suspect place in the country, that will lead us to learn how to close down every website that is dangerous, and it will lead us to a very severe approach to people who advocate the killing of Americans and advocate the use of nuclear of biological weapons.
And, my prediction to you is that either before we lose a city, or if we are truly stupid, after we lose a city, we will adopt rules of engagement that use every technology we can find to break up their capacity to use the internet, to break up their capacity to use free speech, and to go after people who want to kill us to stop them from recruiting people before they get to reach out and convince young people to destroy their lives while destroying us.
In other words, in order to preserve America and the values that make it the country it is, we must destroy the very things which inform the character of the nation. Absurd? Absolutely. Surprising? Unfortunately, not. Since George W. Bush claimed the White House, there have been a number of issues that have become the subject of debate which would, simply, never have entered the pale of serious conversation only a few years ago:
Each of these questions, when posed as simply as they have been asked above, are generally pretty easy for most people to answer in the negative. Yet somehow, we find ourselves in the midst of conversations and arguments parsing out which people it's OK to imprison indefinitely without due process, which ones it is alright to abuse, and whether - as long as he means well - it is permissible for the president to blatantly ignore the rule of law. To this list, we can now add the "debate" Mr. Gingrich would like to spark centering on the circumstances under which we, as citizens, should be grateful for benevolent rulers who will determine for us what kind of speech is acceptable and what is not.
Astonishingly, according to his website, Newt Gingrich is "recognized internationally as an expert on world history, military issues, and international affairs." Given his purported expertise, one can only conclude that the lessons of history have either thoroughly escaped the former Speaker, or that he understands what happens when free speech is restricted, and is an advocate for repression in the United States.
For even blind to history, one need only look around today to see the unintended consequences of short-sighted policies of exceptionalism. Fox News reported in September that Muslim cab drivers working at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport often refuse to serve customers they know are transporting alcohol, out of religious concerns. It can certainly be argued that the drivers should expect to carry passengers with alcohol - a legal substance in the United States - or that they should find alternative employment. How to square that though, with the wide latitude given pharmacists in refusing to provide Plan B contraception based on "moral concerns," a policy wholly supported by Christian conservatives? Likewise, in Albemarle County, Virginia, parents who pressured the public schools to permit distribution of leaflets on Christian activities to students are finding it a bitter pill to swallow that local pagans are taking advantage of the same outlets for information.
Beyond these relatively small examples however, lies the simple fact that Mr. Gingrich's claims of unprecedented danger are patently false. The Bill of Rights was written and made law at a time when the very survival of the United States as a nation was profoundly in question. Great Britain, the world's preeminent power in the 18th century, posed the most serious, direct and imminent military threat that our country has ever faced, and loyalists to the British Crown literally lived side-by-side on American soil with those who favored independence.
It was in this treacherous, perilous environment that the essential freedoms encapsulated in the first ten Amendments to the Constitution - including freedom of speech - were both written and enshrined. While terrorists are unquestionably a frightening enemy, the idea that the danger they represent justifies compromising the Bill of Rights - a document birthed in the most threatening of environments - is unsubstantiated by even a cursory examination of history. Mr. Gingrich's claims to the contrary are nothing more than un-American, fear-mongering authoritarianism at its worst, and conversations about restricting free speech are simply a debate we should not be having.
Keith Olbermann has more: