The United States Government is playing a very dangerous game with the First Amendment, and unfortunately, some members of the media are cheerleading the effort.
This CNN story describing a recent terrorism prosecution is an example of the kind of unquestioning writing that enables the ongoing war on our basic rights.
Here’s how it begins:
Sounds scary, right? A "self-confessed terrorist" was sentenced to 25 years for "posting radical Islamist messages" and trying "to provide material support to a terrorist organization."
What did Zachary Chesser actually do?
He threatened someone on the Internet, expressed support for violence, and allegedly attempted to travel to Somalia to join a militant organization. For these crimes he will spend likely over a quarter of his life in prison. He never hurt anyone, nor has he been accused of doing so.
Specifically, Chesser threatened the creators of the animated television program South Park. He posted their addresses online and asked his followers to "pay them a visit." Menacing language, sure, but not an explicit call to violence.
Just recently we've heard high-profile examples of people making similar menacing comments, for example the right-wing writer and pundit Tucker Carlson who last week said that Iran needed to be "annihilated" and that Iranians are "evil" "lunatics." (That sort of sounds like incitement to genocide, does it not?) Or, for another example, Ann Romney, Mitt's wife, who this week said publicly that she'd like to "strangle" the press.
And while they are reprehensible, neither Ann Romney nor Tucker Carlson should be tried in the justice system for these obviously off the cuff statements that are protected by the First Amendment. The nation got a lesson in the scope of First Amendment protections when the Supreme Court ruled ruled some 40 years ago in the case called Watts v. US.
At an anti-war rally in 1969, an 18 year-old young man told the crowd, to paraphrase, that he'd never put a government rifle in his hand unless he was looking down the barrel at then President Lyndon Johnson.
After a series of contradictory rulings, the Supreme Court found the speaker innocent of any speech crimes. In the majority opinion, the Court wrote: "We agree with petitioner that his only offense here was 'a kind of very crude offensive method of stating a political opposition to the President.'"
Equally to the point: in a concurring opinion in Watts, Justice William O. Douglas wrote:
The Alien and Sedition Laws constituted one of our sorriest chapters; and I had thought we had done with them forever … Suppression of speech as an effective police measure is an old, old device, outlawed by our Constitution.
The Watts ruling came down the right way. But after ten years of the "war on terror" and its shattering of our basic principles of justice here at home, we have entered another realm. In this climate, thought crimes, speech crimes and future crimes are all admissible in court…as long as the defendant is Muslim.
The role of the press
This fear mongering and unquestioning paragraph from the CNN blog shows how little the media is questioning suppression of speech when Muslims are involved:.
In a new report released by the Senate Homeland Security Committee, staffers used Chesser's online writings and personal correspondence with him last year to get a better look at how the Internet influences his thinking. What they saw alarmed them.
According to the report, which calls for stricter policies in dealing with global Internet radicalization and propaganda, Chesser was well-armed for his mission with membership in at least six online terrorist websites and harnessed the reach of social media by using YouTube, Twitter and Facebook to share his message of hate.
Did you catch that? The Senate Homeland Security Committee is ready to use these incidents of online radical speech as a bludgeon with which to hammer away at the free internet — what CNN calls "stricter policies."
(It's not the only context in which this attack on our internet rights is occurring; pay attention to the Twitter subpoena cases related to occupy, and you'll see a similar process unfolding. The central question there, and a related question here, is the right to anonymous speech critical of the government on the internet.)
CNN tells us that Chesser was "well-armed for his mission" with…wait for it…not weapons, not ammunition, not bombs: "membership in…websites and…social media." Strip out the adjectives and superlatives in that sentence and that's what you get. Chesser was well armed with speech, in other words.
But what about the threat from al Qaeda?
The United States government has readily admitted, on various occasions and in varying contexts, that there are probably fewer than 50 fighters from the original al Qaeda in the world today. But the fear motif that drives the surveillance and war machinery requires an enemy.
Enter "domestic radicalization" and "lone wolf terrorists."
These young men have been a major threat to the US, according to the FBI and prosecutors. The young Muslim men (all of them are young Muslim men) are a threat to our society, the government says, because of what they believe, what they say, and whom they associate with.
But who is the real threat to our safety in the United States? Is it really young Muslim men who watch violent videos on the internet and share deranged fantasies about blowing stuff up?
According to the Triangle Center for Terrorism Studies, no.
It's time that our media, the fourth estate, the watchdogs of our democracy, take a different tack when describing the US government's operations and assertions about the war on terror here at home. Reprinting government assertions is not journalism; it is stenography. And it is dangerous.
For democracy to survive, we need a truly independent press, willing to challenge the basic assumptions underlying so many of the prosecutions of “terrorist” suspects. We need a media willing to call "stricter policies" for internet policing what they in fact are: attacks on unpopular ideas and limits to our rights to anonymous speech critical of the government.