Federal Contempt for Free Speech

Where “We the People” are sovereign, the press has a responsibility to investigate government, and the people have a duty to know the issues and speak their minds. The Founders did not just see these roles as opportunities, but knew that government by popular will could only succeed if the levers of accountability were maintained and operated by vigilant citizens.

The entire concept of personal sovereignty depends upon robust and vigorous debate on the issues that impact life and liberty, and therefore often inspire the most passion. When government usurps the authority of the people or the press to speak, a commensurate measure of individual autonomy will be compromised.

On the heels of news that the Department of Justice has been surveilling the press -- with a level of animus demonstrated against James Rosen that this DOJ is not known for applying to dangerous terror suspects -- comes an announcement that federal officials in Tennessee will suggest limits on public speech considered violative of Muslim civil rights. Bill Killian, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee, and Kenneth Moore, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Knoxville Division, will be featured speakers at an event billed as “Public Disclosure in a Diverse Society.” The event is sponsored by the American Muslim Advisory Council of Tennessee.

This meeting has been billed as a forum where “Killian and Moore will provide input on how civil rights can be violated by those who post inflammatory documents targeted at Muslims on social media.” In press interviews, Killian has responded to questions about his anticipated remarks by saying that “internet postings that violate civil rights are subject to federal jurisdiction.” He also revealed intent to “inform the public what federal laws are in effect and what the consequences are.”

The centerpiece of Killian’s clampdown is a controversial piece posted on Facebook by Coffee County Commissioner Barry West. West has explained that the picture of a man aiming a double-barreled shotgun with the caption, “How to wink at a Muslim,” expressed his “prejudice against anyone who’s trying to tear down this country.”

On first reading, one who knows the history of First Amendment rulings over the last eighty-five years might doubt the reporting on U.S. Attorney Killian’s statements.  The Supreme Court has been increasingly protective of public speech on broad and highly charged policy matters over this period. Yet, when a Politico writer called the DOJ to clarify Killian’s leading statements, the DOJ did not show interest in commenting by time of publication.