Salvo 05.16.2024 5 minutes

The Baby and the Bathwater

Illustration of construction worker destroying speech bubble

Campus chaos is no excuse to increase government control of speech.

Among the pressing matters of state in recent weeks, Mike Johnson’s Congress thought it prudent to answer left-wing mobs by passing speech restrictions that will likely only be applied to law-abiding Americans. It seems congressional Republicans remain eager to hand progressives a lifeline when the malevolent nature of their aims are put on clear display. The Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2023 would give the regime carte blanche to crack down on speech they deem to be politically incorrect. You can bet that the Left will make aggressive use of such power immediately.

If fully implemented, this legislation will be a gift to the administrative state. It will allow governmental agencies and progressive courts to essentially criminalize speech that’s critical of groups favored by the left-wing cultural elite. And it will be zealously abused by the full array of intersectional identity groups to further their agendas at the expense of true liberty. Tying federal law to the definitions of anti-Semitism put forth by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) means that private entities which are unaccountable to voters would get to determine the speech rights of all Americans. Today its IHRA, tomorrow it could very well be BLM.

Though personally inclined toward the IHRA’s mission to prevent future atrocities by remembering those of the past, I am also aware that every organization and institution is merely one leader, generation, or cultural pivot away from abandoning its purpose and becoming antagonist to its original mission. Founded in 1998 by former Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson, the IHRA exists for good reason: to ensure that the evils of the Holocaust are never forgotten. In that cause, they have an ally in me.

Most of the wording from the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism is spot on. For example, who could not agree that “Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion” equals anti-Semitism?

Consider this portion of the IHRA’s definition: “Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.” Agreed. Markers like “white” or “European descendant” could also be added to rebut poisonous doctrines such as those found in critical theory. Here’s another winning sentence: “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” So far, so good.

Now ponder this portion of what the IHRA considers “hate speech”: “Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.” This is where the Alliance’s definition becomes problematic.

Though there has been great controversy over who is responsible for Jesus’ death throughout history, often leading to anti-Semitism and even atrocities committed against the Jewish people, there is a real danger that this definition could make teaching the Gospels a form of anti-Semitism. As a private, secular organization, such is their prerogative. As congressionally-endorsed policy however, that is a clear threat to our religious liberty.

As a military veteran, I can assure you there are senior commanders all the way up to the Secretary of Defense who would joyfully follow the precedent that risks being set by House Resolution 6090. Many among them—along with their political enforcement officers in equal opportunity offices—would give preference to extreme left-wing entities like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation for cues on how to treat conservatives and faithful Christians in the force. In my last few years in uniform, I knew of several instances in which over-zealous equal opportunity trainers followed the lead of leftist organizations in labeling basic conservative beliefs as extreme. This was the predominant theme of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s day-one initiative to root out all the supposed “extremists” in the very force that made him a four-star general.

For civilians who pay little attention to issues affecting the troops, I offer a warning that military matters can have sometimes surprising consequences for civil society. Consider that when President Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, enforcement included Union soldiers arresting and imprisoning even Northern civilians in military prisons without charge for merely expressing criticism of the administration. In more recent time, President Joe Biden mocked Americans who take seriously their rights laid out in the Second Amendment, saying their weapons are useless against F-16s. In similar fashion, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Cindy Bronson—in uniform—posted the following message on TikTok:

Understand that if active duty military actually get deployed within the United States, that weapon is not just going to be pointed at other people, other countries, it’s pointed at you. If you do not get in your house when I tell you to, you become the enemy. Martial law. You know, when your rights get curtailed? You don’t have those same freedoms that the constitution guarantees at that point.

The Department of Defense has yet to rule such comments out of line. Posse commitatus only protects us from military rule until it doesn’t.

Congress should scrap the Antisemitism Awareness Act and tell university officials to enforce existing law on campus or lose federal funding and accreditation. Blocking access for Jewish students and trespassing are not forms of protected speech. Neither is breaking and entering nor vandalism. These are criminal actions the law already forbids. If university presidents will not cooperate with law enforcement to restore law and order, Congress has the power to make cooperating with criminals an untenable behavior for the academy. It need not pass shotgun resolutions that will further erode constitutional rights. The government has the tools needed to put a stop to left-wing anarchy. What it lacks is the will.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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