Free speech under seige in favor of patriotic outpouring

Amy Hackbarth

The Anti-War Committee moved a few tables, desks and a refrigerator into its new office space in El Milagro Lutheran Church on Sept. 10.

But three days after the East Coast attacks, officials from the Minneapolis church asked the group to pack its bags.

“They said that the events of Sept. 11 had changed the sentiments of the congregation,” said committee member Jess Sundin. “Some of the congregation members thought that peace activism was unpatriotic.”

The church declined to comment on the issue.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 90 percent of the public supports retaliation against Afghanistan. And that public outpouring of patriotism and war support has created a hostile atmosphere for people expressing anti-war beliefs.

“Feeling free or not free to speak always gets more difficult the stronger the majority seems to be,” said Adam Samaha, a visiting scholar at the Law School.

Belonging to the minority can be difficult, said Jane Kirtley, University professor and director of the Silha Center for Media Law and Ethics.

“Someone who expresses dissent seemingly contrary to public opinion is criticized and vilified,” Kirtley said.

On a national level, Bill Maher, host of the television show “Politically Incorrect,” came under fire after calling proposed U.S. missile attacks against Afghanistan “cowardly.” He compared sending bombs from miles away to the suicide missions of the terrorists who died in the Sept. 11 attacks.

His comments evoked criticism from White House officials.

“It’s a terrible thing to say, and its unfortunate,” said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer in a press briefing responding to Maher’s comments. “They are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.”

While the comment was edited from the briefing on the White House Web site, Fleischer drew criticism from people concerned about the ability to speak freely in the country.

“When someone who is speaking for the president tells people to watch what they’re saying, I think that’s inappropriate,” Kirtley said. “When the government speaks, it takes on a significance.”

Samaha, however, said Fleischer’s comments hold no legal standing.

“I’m not afraid of Ari, and I hope no one else is,” Samaha said. “As far as we know there is nothing to back up those vague warnings.”

Congress will not likely create legislation to restrict First Amendment rights, Samaha said.

“It’s unconstitutional,” he said. “At best, it’s problematic.”

If Congress did attempt to restrict freedom of speech, Samaha said those restraints would affect a citizen’s ability to support terrorist actions. Street marches or individual expression would likely not be suppressed, he said.

But First Amendment freedoms can’t help the Anti-War Committee keep its office space. The group must move out within 60 days.

“We’ve had calls from other churches who say they’d like to find a place for us, though,” Sundin said.

 

Amy Hackbarth welcomes comments at [email protected]