Newt Gingrich is thinking of running for president in 2008. That means time spent in New Hampshire, where he recently spoke to 400 people at the Nackey S. Loeb First Amendment award dinner. And at a reception honoring those who fight for the first amendment, of all places, he announces that it’s time to reinterpret the free speech clause of the first amendment to stop terrorism:
Gingrich, speaking at a Manchester awards banquet, said a “different set of rules” may be needed to reduce terrorists’ ability to use the Internet and free speech to recruit and get out their message.
“We need to get ahead of the curve before we actually lose a city, which I think could happen in the next decade,” said Gingrich, a Republican who helped engineer the GOP’s takeover of Congress in 1994.
Well, sure. Because if the bad guys can’t build webpages, they’ll stop doing bad things to us. What “different rules” does he propose? A “no terrorists can use the internet” rule? Sorry, we’ve heard calls like this before. Hell, we’ve seen action like this before during times of war. American history is chock full of examples where, during wartime, this same argument was made. The result, each and every time, was that those who dared to question the government’s policies were stripped of their free speech rights, their right to assemble peaceably, and their right to petition their government.
We saw it as before the 19th century started, practically before the ink was dry on the first amendment, with the passage of the Sedition Act under John Adams. Newspaper editors were thrown in jail for writing anything that might have the effect of bringing the government “into contempt or disrepute.” We saw it during the Civil War, when Lincoln had some 13,000 citizens arrested for opposing his policies. We saw it during both World Wars, with the arrests of war critics like Eugene Debs, Roger Baldwin, Bertrand Russell and more than 2000 others.
During World War I, a filmmaker made a movie called The Spirit of 76. The movie was about the revolutionary war and documented many atrocities by the British troops against Americans during that war. He was arrested and imprisoned and his movie banned. Why? Because the British were our ally in WW I and the judge declared that the movie might cause Americans “to question the good faith of our ally, Great Britain.” He was sentenced to 10 years.
Narrow free speech in times of war? Hell no. If anything, dissent is more important during times of war, not less. And if you give to government the power to censor ideas in the name of fighting a war, they will inevitably use that power to crush dissent against that war.