The Feds Would Like to Know if You Enjoyed That Video

It is now illegal to "watch something in order to cultivate your desire, your ideology."


Six years ago Newt Gingrich said the nation needed to "look seriously at a level of supervision that we would never dream of if it weren't for the scale of the [terrorist] threat." America needed to "break up their capacity to use the Internet,  break up their capacity to use free speech," he declared – recognizing that such efforts would require to "a serious debate about the First Amendment."

Gingrich's comments – made at, of all places, a free-speech awards banquet – provoked an uproar, and he soon tried to walk them back. But if the case of Tarek Mehanna is any guide, it appears he is finally getting his wish.

Mehanna – a U.S. citizen born in Pittsburgh – recently was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison for providing material support for terrorism. Mehanna did not send al-Qaida lawyers, guns, or money. He was indicted for engaging in criminal conspiracy by doing such things as "watching jihadi videos" and "[seeking] out online Internet links to tribute videos." Those acts "were not used by the government to demonstrate the intent or mental state behind some other crime," says Yale professor Andrew March, a defense witness who wrote about Mehanna's case. "They were the crime."

"It is not illegal to watch something on television," said one of Mehanna's prosecutors. "It is illegal, however, to watch something in order to cultivate your desire, your ideology."  March notes that, as a professor of political science who specializes in Islamic law and war, he also looks at jihadist propaganda and debates the ethics of killing, just as Mehanna did. Their actions are identical; the only difference is their frame of mind. In short, Mehanna is going to prison for what he thought – not what he did.

Some might argue that if there ever were sufficient reason to make an exception to the First Amendment, terrorism is that reason. Lamentably, however, terrorism is only one of many reasons being offered for exception-making these days.

Consider bullying. No decent person is in favor of it, and in the wake of recent tragedies some school systems are seeking ways to curtail it. States across the country have instructed school systems to develop anti-bullying policies; some of those policies include "cyber-bullying" provisions that apply even to behavior outside of school. Last month three eighth-graders in Indiana got in trouble in late April for joking onFacebook – after school, and not on school computers – about (among other things) which of their classmates they would kill if they could. The exchange might have been mean, but it was not a genuine threat. Nevertheless, the girls were expelled.

Arizona has taken that sweeping approach two steps further. A few weeks ago the legislature passed a measure making it a crime for anyone – not just students – to use lewd or profane language to "terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend" anybody else. Pause to let that marinate a little. Especially the "annoy" part.

This is unconstitutional on its face. Yet similar problems bedevil federal legislation reauthorizing the ViolenceAgainst Women Act, which contains provisions that would outlaw anonymous online speech made "with intent to annoy" and make it a federal crime to use a computer in a manner that could "cause substantial emotional distress." 

The bullying measures attempt to do at the primary- and secondary-school levels what campus speech codes have sought to do at universities across the country: protect people from unpleasantness. Yet like those speech codes – which have gone so far as to forbid violating a student's "right" to "respect for personal feelings" – they are exceptions so large they swallow the rule.

All of these efforts address genuine problems. But there are other issues where free speech falls prey to a pseudo-problem. The most salient now is the effort by states and the Occupy movement to roll back the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. Lest anyone forget, that case asked whether that eponymous group could air a documentary about Hillary Clinton  — i.e., whether two or more individuals could come together for the purpose of political expression during an election. The court said yes; its critics say no.

Those critics believe they are protecting something important – democracy – from something ugly: corruption. One would hope so. Nobody today advocates censorship as a desirable end in itself. There is always a reason.

Heywood Broun, a journalist of an earlier era, made the same point only better: "Everybody favors free speech," he said, "in the slack moments when no axes are being ground."

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.

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  1. 1redth!

  2. holy shit

  3. If Team Blue gets its way, watching an online video of an anti-tax or gun-rights rally will have the same ending as it did for Mehanna.

    1. Feature not a bug

    2. And if red team gets it’s way watching an online video of 2 people having sex will land you in jail.

      1. Blah blah fucking blah. Red team. Blue team. Shirts. Skins. Grow the fuck up.

        1. Seriously, the N’Sync vs. Backstreet Boys debate should be taken far more seriously than the Red Team/Blue Team debate.

          1. Especially since they got named wrong.
            Dems aka wannabe commies should be labeled Red.

            1. It’s useful, DJK, by way of 1) denoting what few differences there are between the Teams, and b)shredding each Team on a regular basis, which is helpful beyond measure.

              It helps to know who your enemies are, and the Teams are the very definition of “your enemies”.

            2. Holy shit! I honestly thought I was the only one that thought that the colors are backwards. Even to this day, I still stumble on which is which.

              1. Here in Oz, it really is the other way around. The “Liberal” party (BLUE!) is on the centre-right, with the “Labour” Party (RED!) as the centre-left. With no daylight between.

            3. I remember which is which because team blue are made up of people who, when faced with fact and reason, would hold their breath until they turn blue to get their way.

      2. No way, dumbass. I’ll go red before blue, but I still likes me them videos of people fuckin’!!!! They fuck good!!!!

      3. That already happens. Still, it’s amazing that this has happened, especially with so little comment from the media. Usually the media is willing to defend free speech regarding violence, just not sex.

  4. The guy was basically charged for committing thought crimes. If one day the technology is created to scan what we truly are thinking, the vast majority will probably also be found guilty of having thought crimes (myself included).

    1. It already exists – they just aren’t being used by the Government (at least that we know of). There is biometric software capable of deciphering what different biological signs (Heat output distribution, sweating, eye motions, twitches, etc.) to determine ill-will and a desire to do harm. They are talking about using it in airports for pre-screening. Just do a little Googling for more information. If this case didn’t scare you enough already, current biometric monitoring coupled with this should scare the shit out of you.

      1. Not just this, but there have been some interesting results from experiments in actual mind-reading. At present, the ability is limited – a person can “type” perhaps 10 letters per minute by thinking the appropriate letters – but eventually it will be much better developed.

      2. There is biometric software capable of deciphering what different biological signs (Heat output distribution, sweating, eye motions, twitches, etc.) to determine ill-will and a desire to do harm. They are talking about using it in airports for pre-screening.
        Talking about it? Phht. I got news for ya.
        A buddy of mine is in security. These methods have been in place for years in airports.
        You scratch your nuts coming off a plane and it’s a red flag. You put down a container and walk away, it raises a red flag. You spend too many minutes in the shitter, it raises a red flag.

    2. Actually, that technology has already been created – it is currently being refined.

      Perhaps the American people will rethink their support for criminalizing thoughts, once the majority have all been jailed or – due to the large numbers – eliminated.

  5. Just another example that the Constitution is a dead document designed to placate the ignorant masses.

    1. But my lefty friends tell me it’s a LIVING document!

      I’m so confused…

    2. Any document that must be interpreted by the ruling class for understanding is their tool of oppression. Judges are modern-day priests and the Constitution has become their holy book.

  6. “It is illegal, however, to watch something in order to cultivate your desire, your ideology.”

    Does that mean that the twelve people who watch that Maddow dude’s show will be hauled off to prison?

    1. I think it will depend on the ideology. What Team Blue considers icky ideologies, then yes. Good ones, no.

      1. So only those who watch Fox News need be concerned.

        1. For the moment, Rasillio. Thoughtcrime is a relatively new thing, and the Teams are just now starting to hone their skills at prosecuting them.

          1. How right you are. “Hate crimes” are a good practice session.

          2. Thoughtcrimes have been prosecuted for over a century in America – although, of course, they always call it “protecting public morality” or “protecting the childrenz” or somesuch.

            1. I meant in the most recent iteration of “thoughtcrime”, Alan – and this thread is a prime example of that new breed of crime.

  7. It doesn’t really make the case any better, but it should be noted that Mehanna sought training in Yemen from al-Qaeda source

    Not that it makes this much better. That vile quote in any context is just as evil.

    1. They didn’t try him in a military tribunal as an enemy combatant…he was tried as a CITIZEN in criminal court.

  8. They’re treating him about as bad as they would some dude who downloaded a bunch of child pornography. Terrorporn.

    1. Another thoughtcrime, eh?

    2. Excepting that in order for child porn to exist an actual child needs be violated. I’d say that’s a slightly different circumstance.

  9. He’s obviously an oldthinker who unbellyfeels Ingsoc, so it’s off to Room 101 with him.

  10. How brain-dead must the jurors have been to actually convict this guy? And what kind of lame defense lawyers did he have?

    1. His defense lawyer was someone who gets along with judges and prosecutors and believes that people should let the system work- not destroy it. The jurors respect cops, judges, prosecutors, and all other authority figures. Heil Hitler!

  11. Just like a hate crime, where the thought is the extra element of the crime beyond the normal mens rea.

  12. It’s not a democracy, it’s a republic. Not a minor mix up, and a big pet peeve of mine.

    1. It was a republic, but not anymore.
      The combination of the 17th Amendment and the Judicial branch vacating its duty to judge legislation has made it into a representative democracy.

      1. I, for one, am unwilling to give the 19th Amendment a pass when it comes to how we lost our republic.

        1. A return to the Rule of Thumb, eh?

    2. No, by now it’s a democracy. With all that implies.

      1. Or what sarcasmic said.

  13. Sickening. That is all.

  14. It is illegal, however, to watch something in order to cultivate your desire, your ideology.

    Well, at least they’re upfront that he was prosecuted for a thought crime.

    1. They can be as “upfront” as they want to be about their tyrany because the loyal citizens will put up with it. Heil Hitler!

  15. “It is illegal, however, to watch something in order to cultivate your desire, your ideology.”

    Finally! Michael Moore flicks are outlawed!

  16. “Well, you honor, I didn’t *completely* enjoy watching that video of that infidel getting beheaded.

    “Sure, at first I was interested. Then more interested, mooore interested, more interested…but then I lost interest.”

  17. I’ll offer the Lefty Radical Chic twits a trade; we stop censoring anti-war propaganda if they stop asking that speech that offends Islam get censored.

    Seriously; I am against censorship. Period. Stop. I think that the laws against snuff films and child porn should be built on the premise that such are evidence that a crime has been committed, and should have been turned in to the police. I think that any person who advocates what is laughably called “Campaign Finance Reform” (other than strictly limiting it to American citizens) should be tarred and feathered.

    Now, I want to ask; has anybody looked at simply denying groups that want to spread messages that offend any government financing? That isn’t censorship. That’s thrift.

    1. Why limit it to American citizens? Freedom of speech is freedom of speech, no matter where you were born.

  18. OH! I almost forgot:

    A. Barton Hinkle Heimerschmidt
    His name is my name, too!
    Whenever we go out
    People always shout,
    “There goes A. Barton Hinkle Heimerschmidt!”

    That’s for you, A. Barton. And for RC Dean. It’s been awhile…

  19. Well except that Mehanna did quite a bit more than just watch a few jihadi videos.

    He ran a blog than endeavored to support al-Qaeda’s media wing as-Sahab’s distribution.

    He traveled to Yemen with the intent to join and support AQAP.

    So its not quite so simple is it?

    I know I’m ruining the narrative. But for those interested in the internet Jihadi behind the all American boy.…..pirations/…

    1. Then try him for those crimes, that’s fine. But the state seems to be focusing on other stuff though that have to do with watching videos?

      I think there is a clear difference in wanting to join a violent terrorist group and watching unpopular videos on youtube.

      1. Yes. If he offered practical support to a group that sought to commit violence that is a crime. Journalistic coverage of that group is not a crime, and even admitting to admiring some of their objectives should not be a crime.

        Of course, then one can come to a different question: is AQAP engaged in collective self-defense against an imperialistic and tyrannical U.S. government? Because in that case, it might be argued that such support is admirable, lawful, and even patriotic. Perhaps the U.S. government needs to remove the beam from its own eye before attempting to remove splinters from the eyes of others….

        But in defense of the U.S. government – or at least portions thereof – I think beam removal is already happening in some places, such as the NSA and the CIA. We may often object to some of their methods, but there are some intelligent people working in these agencies who understand that provoking violence sometimes results in violence, and that this is not necessarily in the interests of the United States or its people. This would explain a lot of the covert support for the Arab Spring.

    2. He ran a blog than endeavored to support al-Qaeda’s media wing as-Sahab’s distribution.

      He traveled to Yemen with the intent to join and support AQAP.

      Um, still not seeing any crimes. At least not any legitimate ones. So he supported and wished to join an organization that supports terrorism. HE still has not violated anyones rights or property and until the moment he does he has not commited any crime.

      1. Indeed, the moment he joins that is a crime.

        The issue here is that the government does not understand the difference between Premeditation and thought.

    1. The State may have a valid case but it appears they overcharged.

  20. Annoying speech is illegal? Cool! Because everything those fucking politicians say annoys the hell out of me.

  21. Amerika, whadda fuckin’ country.

  22. This is a tyranny effort on the last lap of it’s long race against liberty. If Statezilla can pass more arbitrary and vague intimidation laws, they can exceed the abillity of legal resistors to keep up, and backlog the courts long enough, it can then intimidate the people with impunity.

    These “shalt not annoy” speech laws are pure tyranny. Bu the Cloward and Piven strategy of “Overwhelming the system” can work both ways.

    They want chaos, for an excuse to oppress by emergency decree. What needs to emerge is “off-grid” comm sources that will essentially spam the enforcement and legislatures with so many speech “violations” that it will either not enforce them, or when they arbitrarily try to enforce them, the effort will be so nakedly arbitrary that they will lose credibility.

    This is why a non-violent but hostile and voluminous speech resistance must continue. The more that speak out aggressively, the less likely Statezilla will be able to decimate and intimidate successfully.

    Keep attacking, my libber friends. Find ways to increase your rate and intensity of attack. Keep pointing out their fallacies and lame covers for fraud, extortion, assault, sabotage or seizure of property value, and sometimes murder.

    Keep the heat on, and recruit more sharp tongues and pens. Liberty is in retreat, but we can regroup, and we can turn back the horde.

  23. Thoughtcrime is doubleplusungood

  24. This is certainly an interesting case. Not quite as cut and dried as the article makes it seem. It raises interesting questions about the point at which you have crossed the line from offensive but protected speech into criminal conspiracy.

    The nature of conspiracy cases is that no violence or injury has yet occurred, but that intent to do so was formed and action was taken toward that end. Talking about how much you’d like to kill your spouse, vs getting price quotes from a hitman, vs actually hiring a hitman and acquiring a weapon for the crime, for example. I must admit I’m not familiar with all of the evidence presented in this case or the precise nature of the statutes under which Mehanna was charged, so I couldn’t offer an informed opinion, but I think it deserves more inquiry than this piece provides.

  25. I guess we can kiss all the internet porn good-bye soon? Or is THAT desire irrelevant?

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