I have recently been highly critical of reports that Rep. Iihan Omar (D., Minn.) has given up to one million dollars in campaign funds to her own husband’s company, one of the long-standing loopholes for corruption in Washington. Omar has been highly controversial for her positions and statements but this should be a matter that unifies people across the political spectrum. However, the attention of her colleagues has not been on closing this loophole but instead on lashing out at her recent call for the “dismantling the whole system of oppression” in the United States from its economic to political structures. A resolution, introduced by Rep. Andy Biggs (R., Ariz) would denounce Omar for having “a documented history of expressing anti-American sentiments.” The resolution is a mistake that undermines both free speech and democratic values. It should be withdrawn.
Omar recently declared:
“We are not merely fighting to tear down the systems of oppression in the criminal justice system. We are fighting to tear down systems of oppression that exist in housing, in education, in health care, in employment, in the air we breathe. As long as our economy and political systems prioritize profit without considering who is profiting, who is being shut out, we will perpetuate this inequality,” she said. “We cannot stop at the criminal justice system, we must begin the work of dismantling the whole system of oppression wherever we find it.”
Many commentators and fellow members immediately denounced Omar’s positions. It was an example of how free speech is meant to work. Omar’s speech was met with counter speech.
However, members now want a formal censure or condemnation from the House as a whole. It is obviously not going to happen with the Democratically controlled house. Yet, the resolution itself is a concern for what it says about the right of members to voice their views of the inherent flaws or abuses of our system. I do not happen to agree with Omar but I find the resolution far more concerning than her hyperbolic comments.
The resolution denounces Omar for advocating “a Marxist form of government that is incompatible with the principles laid out in the founding documents of the United States.”
As a Democratic nation, members have every right to call for sweeping reforms, even changing the emphasis or structure of our economic and political system. Omar has become a member of Congress to seek such changes lawfully and constitutionally. To her credit, she has overcome much in her life to attain her position in Congress and has become a global figure of influence. I do not agree with her and will oppose many of her proposals. However, we are all working within a constitutional structure that allows for and protects different visions for this country.
It is not enough to say that such resolution are just an exercise of free speech for other members. These members are seeking to use the imprimatur of their house to denounce political opponents. I have long opposed the use of such institutional statements, including most recently the effort on my own faculty to denounce Attorney General Bill Attorney as a law school institution. Individual members, like faculty members, are free to join as individuals in such statements. It is a misuse of the Congress to use resolution to denounce those with opposing political or economic views.
It is also a practice that makes for poor legislative cultures. The House Democrats could endlessly pass resolutions condemning their opponents as racists or fascists. Since these resolutions do not take any concrete action, courts are likely to view the matters as outside of the realm of judicial review or lacking a cognizable injury for judicial relief. The result is to further the stifling intolerance for opposing views that we are seeing across the country, particularly on our campuses. This becomes an insatiable appetite to use our institutions to denounce or silence or marginalize those with opposing views. The way to defend our system is not to use the Congress to denounce political opponents. We have gone through ugly periods like the Red Scare where such condemnations were comment and members used their institutional power to intimidate or coerce those with dissenting views.
The greatest “anti-American” threat to our freedoms is the effort to oppose or chill the exercise of free speech, particularly by a political leader. The debate started by Omar is the ultimate example of our core values. We can disagree with each other while affirming our right to call for and seek changes within our system. The use of institutional resolutions of censure or condemnation undermine those values. Members, like free speech, require space. Indeed, in New York Times v. Sullivan, Justice William Brennan noted that “the freedoms of expression” require “breathing space…to survive.”
I do not question the sincere feelings of anger of these sponsors but they should withdraw this resolution in the interests of the very American values that they cite.