- - Sunday, December 6, 2015


The First Amendment is the greatest gift the founding fathers bequeathed to us, because it’s free speech that makes everything possible. The First Amendment does not guarantee nice speech, or good speech, or friendly speech, or even responsible speech. It guarantees free speech, the right of every American to say what he thinks, even if he thinks rude and disrespectful things.

This sometimes irritates many in the governing class, who imagine their lives would be smooth and easy, the skies would be blue and there would never be a discouraging word, if they didn’t have to put up with criticism from their fellow Americans who do not understand how great their leaders are.

Free speech confuses certain recent immigrants, too, who came to these shores from places where speech is anything but free, and saying the wrong thing can even be fatal. They’re puzzled, too, when their religious beliefs are not accorded respect and obeisance enforced by law.

Loretta Lynch, the new attorney general, tried to reassure Muslims the other day, the day after a “radicalized” Muslim man and his Muslim wife killed 14 Americans at a holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif., for reasons not yet fully clear. Speculation about the suspects and their purposes was nevertheless robust. Americans are a noisy people. Miss Lynch promised she would take “aggressive action” against anyone who uses “anti-Muslim rhetoric” that “edges toward violence.”

Saying rude and impolite things about Muslims is not a nice thing to do. Neither is it nice to say rude and impolite things about Mennonites and Methodists and Baptists and Jews and Buddhists, but sometimes ill-mannered and unkind people do. If someone moves beyond robust and disrespectful speech to make credible threats against Muslims or anyone else the attorney general has a sworn responsibility to protect them from those who would do bad things.

But her imprecise language about what she can do about disrespect is more than disturbing. She told a dinner of Muslim activists that her “greatest fear” is the “incredibly disturbing rise of anti-Muslim rhetoric” and she promised to prosecute those she thinks are guilty of speech inspiring violence.

“When we talk about the First Amendment,” she told them, “we [must] make it clear that actions predicated on violent talk are not American. They are not who we are, they are not what we do, and they will be prosecuted.”

This loose and imprecise talk (the attorney general, like a lot of lawyers, could use a little tutelage in remedial English), does not specify exactly what the lady is talking about. What, exactly, is speech that “edges toward violence”? What are “actions predicated on violent talk?” It’s the violence, which the law has always punished, that’s against the law, not the language. She could have made this clear if that is what she was talking about.

At a later press conference, she called the San Bernardino massacre “a wonderful opportunity” to make changes in police work. “We’re at the point where these issues have come together really like never before in law-enforcement thought and in our nation’s history, and it gives us a wonderful moment to really make significant change.”

She was not speaking clearly here, either, and perhaps by design. The police work in San Bernardino was particularly good and effective, and law enforcement officers went out of their way to discourage a rush to judgment about the identity and motives of the suspects. The attorney general’s remarks last week were anything but reassuring to any of us.

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