Note: Important update and bump after post.
Newt Gingrich has tried to position himself as the premiere conservative candidate for the 2008 Republican presidential primaries, a mission made easier by the list of front-runners already in the race. However, he may have taken a stumble yesterday when he posited that freedom of speech may have to be curtailed in order to win the war on terrorism:
A former House speaker, Newt Gingrich, is causing a stir by proposing that free speech may have to be curtailed in order to fight terrorism.
“We need to get ahead of the curve rather than wait until we actually literally lose a city, which I think could literally happen in the next decade if we’re unfortunate,” Mr. Gingrich said Monday night during a speech in New Hampshire. “We now 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 the threat.”
Speaking at an award dinner billed as a tribute to crusaders for the First Amendment, Mr. Gingrich, who is considering a run for the White House in 2008, painted an ominous picture of the dangers facing America.
“This is a serious, long-term war,” the former speaker said, according an audio excerpt of his remarks made available yesterday by his office. “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.”
Gingrich has an odd sense of place for his new campaign crusade. At a dinner that honored people who took risks to maintain our First Amendment freedoms, he basically told them that their work was in vain. To add even more confusion, Gingrich also took the opportunity to bash John McCain for his own attack on political speech with the BCRA — and rightfully so.
Gingrich left the specifics out of the proposal, which makes this somewhat vague. Does Newt propose limiting political speech that supports radical Islamists? Does he want to restrict the exercise of religion by Muslims in radical mosques? Could he be proposing both? Until we get more specific about the restrictions, specific criticism will be difficult to stage, and perhaps that’s his intent.
However, it isn’t difficult to defend the First Amendment in principle, and we need to do that now. The First Amendment has always had an exception for speech that incites a movement to violently overthrow the government of the United States, and I’m all for enforcing that. However, if Gingrich believes that we can win the war by silencing American citizens, then he is fighting the wrong war on behalf of the wrong principles. All he is doing is replacing one bogeyman (political corruption) for another (terrorism); in essence, he’s no different from McCain.
The remedy for bad speech is more speech. The solution to radical mosques is to enforce immigration laws and to tighten visa requirements to keep radicals from entering the US. If people want to advocate for terrorist attacks and the violent overthrow of our elected government, then they have already broken the law, and it requires no sacrifice from Americans to prosecute such people. Free speech and religious freedom did not cause terrorism; in fact, the lack of both causes it. If Gingrich wants to offer the hair of the dog as a solution, then he will find himself very lonely on the campaign trail for the next two years.
UPDATE AND BUMP: I received a number of e-mails today cautioning readers about taking the NY Sun account as an accurate rendition of Newt’s remarks. I e-mailed Newt’s staff for a clarification, and they dispute Josh Gerstein’s characterization of Newt’s remarks. They have a selected excerpt on their site, as well as the full audio of the speech. I haven’t had a listen to the full remarks yet, but from the excerpt, it looks like Newt’s office has a point:
This is a serious long term war, and it will enviably 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 ether 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.
This is a serious problem that will lead to a serious debate about the first amendment, but I think that the national security threat of losing an American city to a nuclear weapon, or losing several million Americans to a biological attack is so real that we need to proactively, now, develop the appropriate rules of engagement.
If that’s all Newt said, it doesn’t seem all that outrageous to me. However, it would have been helpful to get a complete transcript of his speech, to be fair to the Sun and to Gerstein, both of whom normally do terrific work and are highly reliable. I’ll try to listen to the entire speech later tonight, but as things stand at the moment, I think Gerstein may have blown this out of proportion in his reporting.
Stephen Bainbridge has more.