The Islamic State inspires Eric Posner to question American values

Slate got a lot of hateclicks yesterday for publishing Eric Posner’s argument that, in light of the Islamic State’s efforts to radicalize American citizens, we should consider new laws that restrict the rights of those citizens. As he wrote:

Never before in our history have enemies outside the United States been able to propagate genuinely dangerous ideas on American territory in such an effective way—and by this I mean ideas that lead directly to terrorist attacks that kill people. The novelty of this threat calls for new thinking about limits on freedom of speech.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time Posner has wet his pants over what he feels to be disqualifying misuses of our speech rights. Earlier this year, he argued that college students were so out of control with their childish and at the same time fascistic demands of their professors that it was time to police them as if they were children in an educational prison. You know, like high school.

But back to Posner’s Islamic State-inspired call for questioning American values.

Posner proposes a battery of measures that would, among other things, make it illegal to view websites that “glorify, express support for, or provide encouragement for ISIS or support recruitment by ISIS; to distribute links to those websites or videos, images, or text taken from those websites; or to encourage people to access such websites by supplying them with links or instructions.” Penalties for these web hits would escalate, with a government letter after the first offense all the way up to prison sentences.

One of the more obvious practical problems with this proposal is that, only one paragraph earlier, Posner was lamenting the fact that Ali Amin, an American teenager who was recently sentenced to 11 years in prison for aiding Islamic State militants, was radicalized on Twitter after chatting with strangers — first in its public forum, and then over direct message. Any site can potentially be a site that glorifies and expresses support for the Islamic State if it allows users to type what they want. Posner does propose having the government force social media sites to do more to block anti-American propaganda, but the scope of his reading ban could open the door for the government to eventually shut down social media entirely. And while, for practical reasons, I doubt Posner would endorse making it illegal to read pro-Islamic State tweets, but retweeting pro-Islamic State messages has already been used as evidence in a terror prosecution. That’s a problem.

Posner brushes aside First Amendment concerns by pointing out that the laws that his proposal runs afoul of have only been around for the last fifty years or so:

the flag of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or simply the Islamic State (IS). Via Shutterstock.

The Islamic State’s flag,  via Shutterstock.

Under current doctrine, such an anti-propaganda law is unconstitutional because it would interfere with the right of people to receive or read political information—as would proposed laws that would require Internet companies such as Facebook and Twitter to remove ISIS-related propaganda from their websites. The Supreme Court has held that the government can ban political speech only when it poses an immediate threat to public safety, as when an orator encourages a crowd to go on a rampage. Speech that blasts the American constitutional system and praises America’s enemies has been held constitutionally protected time and again.

However, these rules go back only to the 1960s. Before then, in the United States, people could be punished for engaging in dangerous speech. The U.S. government prosecuted Nazi sympathizers during World War II, draft protesters during World War I, and Southern sympathizers in the Union during the Civil War. It’s common sense that when a country is embroiled in a war, it should counter propaganda that could populate a fifth column with recruits.

The thing is, we aren’t at war. At least, not the army-versus-army war that Posner is invoking. More US citizens have been killed by white supremacists than have been killed by Islamic terrorists since 9/11. The Islamic State only poses a threat to a large number of American lives if we decide to send a wave of ground troops to Iraq and Syria. As with mass shootings more generally, statistically speaking you simply aren’t going to die in a terror attack.

The war we’re engaged in, if you want to call it a war, is a war of ideas. And one of the chief ideas propagated by the Islamic State, and far-right Muslim leaders more generally, is that the West is hypocritical and rife with contradictions. They argue that we brag about our freedoms, but don’t extend them to Muslims. They argue that we care about the right to say whatever you want only as long as it’s convenient. Sure, they say, their version of Islam doesn’t allow for free and unregulated speech, but at least it doesn’t pretend to.

It isn’t out of the question that somewhere in cyberspace — perhaps on Twitter — an Islamic State militant is sending an American teenager Eric Posner’s article to prove that point. Perhaps we should censor it?


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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8 Responses to “The Islamic State inspires Eric Posner to question American values”

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  2. FLL says:

    Does Posner propose a ban on reading material on Stormfront, apocalyptic Christian sites and other sites that glorify violent attacks on government and Planned Parenthood facilities?

  3. BeccaM says:

    “Those who would give up essential Liberty…”

    Oh fuck it. The most certain way to make any idea or movement–good or evil–more powerful and popular is to attempt to ban the expression of it. And you’re right, Jon, this isn’t even a declared war.

    Posner’s is also the coward’s solution, which of course never works. Let’s be clear here: The scope of Posner’s proposed free speech ban has the potential to shut down all but the commerce-related parts of the Internet. No more news sites, no more blogs, no more forums or comments or on-line communities. Probably no more uncensored email. A single troll could completely shut down any online forum or blog simply by posting a pro-ISIL/Daesh/ISIS message on the boards or in the comments or via a status update. Hell, even Yelp and Amazon would have to assign staff to ensure that no pro-ISIL sentiments were expressed in their service and product reviews.

    In a way, his proposals sound to this old war horse like he’s advocating the United States turn itself into what used to be Soviet-controlled East Germany, a country whose citizens all informed on each other and where everyone assumed they were being spied on by the secret police. All because there’s a scary militant group in the Middle East.

  4. JaneE says:

    In other words, change America to be just as tightly controlled as the territory ISIS controls. Freedom of speech? Nah. Freedom of religion? Not if you’re Muslim, or dark skinned enough to pass for Muslim.

    We already have people saying girls wearing skirts, or short pants, or crop tops, or whatever deserved to be raped. She should have worn a burka. We already have people killing doctors because they performed abortions. We have sovereign citizens killing cops. We have militias killing Hispanic children. No doubt in the brave New America, they will form the nucleus of the new morality and patriotic police.

  5. BeccaM says:

    Proposals for improved airport security and screenings did make sense. How they were implemented made almost no sense at all. The single most important feature was to add reinforced cockpit doors to planes and new procedures to ensure that door stayed locked during flight–measures which the airlines fought against tooth-and-nail because it represented a cost to them.

    From shoe removals to confiscating nail clippers and water bottles, these measures were ridiculous airport security theater. Even as they were seizing small sharp objects in the screening line, the airlines were still using real silverware and serving drinks in real glasses in their first class seating. They restrict liquids, tossing confiscated bottles into giant barrels right next to screening lines…but nobody with a laptop battery and a foil-wrapped stick of gum is barred from boarding.

    In any case though, I agree with you on the other points: The gov’t said mass surveillance was essential, yet it hasn’t done anything. No stopped plots, and clear repeated evidence the gathered data is being misused.

    Now we have pants-wetters who suggest the solution for ‘terrorists who hate our freedoms’ is to give up those freedoms and go full-bore repression.

  6. The_Fixer says:

    It’s a trade-off that will not work anyway. These things Posner wants to do will do nothing to defeat ISIS.

    This reminds me of the “Streisand Effect” – the more you try to hide something, the more people will try to seek it out. The net effect is that you wind up unwittingly exposing and popularizing that which you’ve been trying to hide.

    I can only conclude that Posner hasn’t heard of that, or maybe he’s just stupid and has a computer with a keyboard that he uses to spout off.

  7. Don Chandler says:

    First, you had airport security…made sense.
    Then, you had mass surveillance…could make sense but it was unchecked and used to spy on citizens.
    Now, they want censorship. Defeating ISIS isn’t worth the trade off.

  8. goulo says:

    “We had to destroy freedom to save it.” ….

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