For many members of the political class and beltway media there is no wrong time to constrict the democratic liberties promised in our Bill of Rights. Ever since Woodrow Wilson set out to make the world safe for democracy by first seeking to dismantle democracy at home, these calls for diminished civil liberties have always been justified by arguing that the very liberties in question are in danger.
The script is always the same. Someone, somewhere, either at home or abroad, or worse yet some combination of the two working together in some sort of sinister, well crafted conspiracy that should make even the Illuminati blush, hates us for our “freedoms.” Not only do they hate us for our freedoms, but they seek to use these freedoms themselves to take away our freedoms! These freedom haters print and distribute political literature, stand on soapboxes, hold public meetings and rallies, express their views over social media, and – the most sinister of them all – even organize political parties and contest elections!
The thing about those who hate us for our freedoms is that their ideas are like some sort of super-contagious disease. One day you are a normal, free-market loving American, perhaps even a mid-level manager at an investment bank, walking down the street. Someone hands you a piece of paper, thinking it is a take-out menu, you grab it, but unbeknownst to you it is a socialist leaflet! Attempting to figure out how much it costs to have a meatball sub delivered to your apartment, your eyes make contact with the page, and your brain starts to assemble the random characters into familiar words. Suddenly, you quit your job at the bank, fail to show up to any Fourth of July BBQs, and are part of an underground cell actively plotting to deprive all Americans of their freedom.
Or perhaps you were just scrounging the Internet for the latest tidbit on Justin Beiber. Scrolling through Twitter you accidentally stumble upon an ISIS tweet. In just the time it takes to read 140 characters you’ve denounced the Beibs and the American way of life and have headed overseas to join a terrorist training camp where you will use your newfound skills to take away American freedoms.
Of course, since our civil liberties and freedom are what makes great as a nation, and are what makes the enemy of the week hate us, we have no other choice, but to defend said civil liberties and freedoms. Since those who want to deprive of us those freedoms are using those very freedoms to accomplish their goals, we have no choice but to deprive ourselves of them. It is the only way to defend them against the evildoers.
As Glenn Greenwald points out, many are calling for restricting free speech in response to the threat from ISIS right on cue. These views are not just consigned to the fringe right. Greenwald points to a recent New York Times article entitled “ISIS Influence on Web Prompts Second Thoughts on the First Amendment” that points out articles by legal scholars in Slate and Bloomberg which would argue for a restricted interpretation of the First Amendment, departing from the last fifty years of legal precedent in order to ban certain ideas.
This is coupled with an increased fixation on the internet. Not only does Donald Trump want to “shut down parts of the internet,” members of Congress are actively dreaming up ways to police social media. Hearings have been held on “radicalization on social media” and bills, like Sen. Diane Feinstein’s (D-CA) bill to require social media to report terrorist activity or Rep. Ted Poe’s (R-TX) bill forcing the President to issue a report on how to counter “radicalization” on social media, have been, and are being seriously considered. The specific fixation on Twitter and social media is reminiscent of Senator Joe Lieberman’s 2008 fixation about “terror videos” on YouTube. Lieberman would go so far as to propose giving the federal government an Internet “Kill Switch.”
All of those measures involve curtailing the liberties promised by the Bill of Rights on the grounds that those liberties somehow pose a threat to the government. These measures are not aimed at criminal acts or even acts at all; they are aimed at ideas, beliefs, and speech. The Supreme Court has held for fifty years now that ideas or speech, even when they advocate lawless behavior, like violence, cannot be punished, unless such speech is meant to incite imminent lawless action and is likely to do so. For example, advocating the jailing of people for constitutionally protected speech is itself constitutionally protect speech, even though the act itself would be unlawful—and this is a good thing, especially for those politicians and pundits who advocate such proposals.
The First Amendment protects speech, including radical or “dangerous” speech. If our strength as a nation derives from our civil liberties then weakening free speech will not help us. Of course, the entire idea of destroying the Bill of Rights in order to save it is so bizarre that one is left questioning whether the politicians and pundits proposing such measures are really interested in saving the Bill of Rights at all, or if they are just justifying a long-held desire to weaken civil liberties and suppress ideas of which they disapprove.