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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