The Obama Administration is currently struggling to deal with disclosure of its attack on the free press under Attorney General Eric Holder. Now, it’s U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee, Bill Killian, suggesting an equally disturbing attack on free speech. Killian told a meeting with local Muslim citizens that he wants to “educate” people about how civil rights laws can be used against anti-Muslim speech. He made these comments along side of the FBI special agent in charge of the Knoxville office.
Killian was attempting to assure the community that “We need to educate people about Muslims and their civil rights, and as long as we’re here, they’re going to be protected.” That is an admirable outreach to this community. However, he then added that the appearance is an effort “to inform the public what federal laws are in effect and what the consequences are.” Killian discussed a recent controversy where a local Tennessee politician posted a photo of a man aiming a shotgun at the camera with the caption “How to wink at a Muslim.”
Killian was making the valid point of the different treatment given to such pictures: “If a Muslim had posted ‘How to Wink at a Christian,’ could you imagine what would have happened?” However, he was there to discuss the role of his office and linked the use of the civil rights laws to such inflammatory statements or publications. As the lead prosecutor, he was suggesting that his office (and the FBI) would be dealing with such matters as violations of federal law.
The comments raised obvious concerns given the Obama Administration’s support for an international blasphemy law during the first term. For many years, I have been writing about the threat of an international blasphemy standard and the continuing rollback on free speech in the West. For recent columns, click here and here and here.
Much of this writing has focused on the effort of the Obama Administration to reach an accommodation with allies like Egypt to develop a standard for criminalizing anti-religious speech. We have been following the rise of anti-blasphemy laws around the world, including the increase in prosecutions in the West and the support of the Obama Administration for the prosecution of some anti-religious speech under the controversial Brandenburg standard. Now that effort has come to a head with the new President of Egypt President Mohamed Mursi calling for enactment of an anti-blasphemy law at the United Nations.
Killian’s invocation of the civil rights law may have assured the audience but it triggered an outcry from civil libertarians. The first amendment protects speech generally, not just good or polite speech. If the government investigates speech because it is inflammatory or insulting, it would create a chilling effect on citizens even without prosecution. Moreover, the civil rights laws were never intended to be used to combat such free speech.
As the ranking federal enforcement officer in Tennessee, Killian represents a major potential threat to free speech when he publicly tries to “educate” the public on the power of his office to prosecute them in cases of inflammatory speech. He does not have that authority since such speech is protected under the first amendment. I understand the desire to assure this community, which has been subject to so much hate and prejudice. However, his comments left the false impression that he can and will police speech in Tennessee.
Killian’s example and the reference to the civil rights laws left an obvious impression that he believed his office could prosecute such matters. As such, he should make it clear that it does not have that authority to not only assure the public at large but to be clear and honest with this community as to the limits of governmental power in combating inflammatory speech like the picture.