Thursday, April 28, 2005

Ali al-Timimi conviction in Virginia

A few friends were surprised by the quote I gave the Washington Post following the announcement of the conviction of Ali al-Timimi by a Virginia jury on charges of encouraging followers to take up arms and jihad against the United States. The quote is accurate - although the ellipsis takes out some important qualifiers.

Essentially, I think the US government overreached in its theories against al-Timimi to the point of criminalizing speech as such, and I think there are serious First Amendment problems with that. I think there were grounds on which he could and should have been convicted for actual direction and participation, rather than speech alone, but the government's theories went well beyond that point. It is not the conviction as such that disturbs me, but the overreaching government theories that create serious First Amendment issues. If you look at how the government presented its case throughout the course of the trial, it did not limit itself by any means to saying, al-Timimi was directing his followers to do this or that; the government prosecutors really argued - also argued - that one could not preach, in the abstract, that one should take up arms against the United States. It is what the prosecutors 'also argued' that troubles me in this case. If they wanted to establish a strong precedent that you can't preach violence against the US, they did so - but that is the wrong precedent, historically and legally, under the First Amendment. Perhaps there are ways in which these lines can be sorted out on appeal.

I may as well add that the safety of the First Amendment lies in the hands of conservatives, not liberals. It's not because conservatives attack the First Amendment and liberals defend it - on the contrary, progressives have long been disenchanted with the First Amendment, because it gets in the way of liberal authoritarianism to impose its standards - on schools, on workplaces, on universities, on churches, and so on - without having to argue and debate them. That disenchantment grows as liberals look with longing to other societies in the world without First Amendment protections and see how much easier it is for liberal elites to control public opinion. So it becomes a special obligation of conservatives and libertarians to be First Amendment purists, proudly and without dilution, protecting even hateful and wicked speech in the way liberals used to, before they discovered their authoritarian streak.

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