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Gingrich wants to restrict freedom of speech?

Legal expert looks at constitutionality of former House Speaker's comments

Gingrich against freedom of speech?
Nov. 28: At a dinner honoring the First Amendment, Newt Gingrich reportedly suggested a "different set of rules" might be necessary to stop terrorists using freedom of speech to get out their message. Keith Olbermann discusses the constitutionality of this with Jonathan Turley.


Gingrich just firing up the base?
Nov. 28: Was Newt Gingrich just trying to fire up the base with his comments about the First Amendment?  "Countdown" host Keith Olbermann asks Newsweek's Jonathan Alter.


By Keith Olbermann
Anchor, 'Countdown'
Updated: 12:15 p.m. ET Nov. 29, 2006

Keith Olbermann
Anchor, 'Countdown'

Newt Gingrich called for a reexamination of free speech at the Loeb First Amendment Award Dinner in New Hampshire this week, saying a “different set of rules to prevent terrorism” are necessary.

Gingrich’s call to restrict free speech is mainly focused on the Internet.

Keith Olbermann discussed the constitutionality of this with George Washington University law professor and constitutional law expert Jonathan Turley.

Story continues below ↓

This is a transcript from the show.

It’s in the quintessential movie about this city, “Chinatown.”  Morty the Mortician turns to Jack Nicholson’s character and says, “Middle of the drought, and the water commissioner drowns.  Only in L.A.”  Tonight, a real-life equivalent.  Middle of a dinner honoring the sanctity of the First Amendment, and the former speaker of the House talks about restricting freedom of speech.  Only in the Republican Party.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, it might have been his first attempt to fire up his base for a possible presidential run, or it might have been something more ominous.  But Newt Gingrich has actually proposed a different set of rules and invoked the bogeyman of terror.

Gingrich was the featured speaker at the annual Nackey S. Loeb First Amendment Award Dinner in Manchester, New Hampshire, Monday night, where he not only argued that campaign finance reform and the separation of church and state should be rethought, because they allegedly hurt the First Amendment, but he also suggested that new rules might be necessary to stop terrorists using freedom of speech to get out their message.

Here is his rationalization:


NEWT GINGRICH, FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER:  My view is that either before we lose a city, or if we are truly stupid after we lose a city, we will adopt rules of engagement that we 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.


OLBERMANN:  If you’re going to destroy freedom of speech, bub, you’ve already lost all the cities.

To paraphrase Pastor Martin Noemuller’s poem about Germany in the ‘30s and ‘40s: First they came for the Fourth Amendment, then they came for habeas corpus, then came for free speech, and there was no one allowed to speak up.

The politics in a moment.


OLBERMANN:  So the conventional wisdom on this is, he’s to breathe life into the same scare tactics that worked so well for the president and the vice president until four weeks ago.  But could this be more nefarious than just politics?  Could any president really gut free speech in the name of counterterrorism?

TURLEY:  They could.  I mean, it’s bizarre it would occur in a First Amendment speech.  God knows what he’d say at a Mother’s Day speech.

But, you know, this really could happen.  I mean, the fact is that the First Amendment is an abstraction, and when you put up against it the idea of incinerating millions of people, there will be millions of citizens that respond, like some Pavlovian response, and deliver up rights.  We’ve already seen that.

People don’t seem to appreciate that you really can’t save a Constitution by destroying it.

OLBERMANN:  We asked Mr. Gingrich’s office for the full speech.  To their credit, they provided most of it to us, late relative to our deadline.  But let me read you a little bit more of this that we’ve just gotten, Jonathan.

“I want to suggest to you that we right now should be impaneling people to look seriously at a level of supervision that we would never dream of, if it were not for the scale of this threat.”  That’s one quote. 

“This is a serious, long-term war,” Gingrich added, “and it will inevitably lead us to want to know what is said in every suspect place in the country.  It will lead us to learn how to close down every Web site that is dangerous.”

Jonathan, are there not legal methods already in place to deal with such sites that do not require what Mr. Gingrich has here called “supervision that we would never dream of?”

:  Well, there are plenty of powers and authorities that could be used to monitor truly dangerous people.  But what you see here, I think, is the insatiable appetite that has developed among certain leaders for controlling American society.

We saw that with John Ashcroft not long after 9/11, when he said the critics were aiding and abetting the terrorists.  There is this insatiable appetite that develops when you feed absolute power to people like Gingrich.

And people should not assume that these are just going to be fringe candidates, and this could never happen.  Fear does amazing things to people, and it could a sort of self-mutilation in a democracy, where we give up the very things, the very rights that define us, and theoretically, the very things that we are defending.

OLBERMANN:  Also, when you talk about closing down Internet sites, who is the one who’s going to decide which those are?  I mean, it could be the Daily Kos, it could be Citizens for Legitimate Government, it could be the sports Web site Dead Spin, for all we know, if he doesn’t like any one of them in particular.

TURLEY:  Well, what these guys don’t understand is that the best defense against bad ideas, like extremism and terrorism, is free speech.  That’s what we’ve proven.  That’s why they don’t like us, is that we’re remarkably successful as a democracy, because we’ve shown that really bad ideas don’t survive in the marketplace, unless you try to suppress them, unless you try to keep people from speaking.  Then it becomes a form of martyrdom.  Then you give credence to what they’re saying.

OLBERMANN:  Last question, the specific idea about the Internet.  There was a story just today out of Toronto that researchers at a Canadian university developed some software that will let users in places like China that have Internet restrictions, the phrase they used were, “hop over government’s Internet firewalls.”  Might it be that the technology will be our best defense against the Newt Gingriches of this country?

TURLEY:  It may be.  We may have to rely on our own creativity to overcome the inclinations of people like Newt Gingrich.

OLBERMANN:  George Washington University law professor and constitutional law expert, and, I think it’s fair to say, friend of the Constitution, Jonathan Turley.  Great thanks, Jon.

TURLEY:  Thanks, Keith.

© 2006 MSNBC Interactive
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