ericposnerUniversity of Chicago Prof. Eric Posner, the fourth most-cited law professor in the U.S. as of May 2014, says the U.S. government may need to jail you after enough warnings if you even read an ISIS Web site. He does not mention ISIS e-books by way of the E word, but it’s hard to see why they would not be covered in the final version of a law that he urges Washington to consider. One also wonders what the same mindset could mean for libraries of all kinds, including the paper variety.

In a Slate article, Posner proposes to make it “a crime to access websites that glorify, express support for, or provide encouragement for ISIS or support recruitment by ISIS; to distribute links to those websites or videos, images, or text taken from those websites; or to encourage people to access such websites by supplying them with links or instructions.”

He says the  law’s targets would be “naïve people, rather than sophisticated terrorists, who are initially driven by curiosity to research ISIS on the Web.

“The law would provide graduated penalties. After the first violation, a person would receive a warning letter from the government; subsequent violations would result in fines or prison sentences. The idea would be to get out the word that looking at ISIS-related websites, like looking at websites that display child pornography, is strictly forbidden. As word spread,” the  naïve “would be discouraged from searching for ISIS-related websites and perhaps be spared radicalization and draconian punishment for more serious terrorism-related crimes.

”The law would not deter sophisticated terrorists who send one another encrypted messages. That’s not its point. ISIS seeks to recruit Americans on American soil; in order to recruit from the public, it obviously cannot act secretly. It must instead broadcast widely and rely on surrogates to broadcast widely, in order to reach an audience of nonradicalized Muslims. This is a vulnerability. When people discover ISIS websites and circulate them by Twitter, Facebook, and other public websites, those people often disclose their identities. Many are too naïve to use pseudonyms; others reveal their identities to their ISPs, which can be forced to cough them up to police. Teenagers who are curious about ISIS but not yet committed to it are unlikely to use complicated encryption technologies to mask their identities from ISPs. Laws directed at this behavior would make a dent in recruitment, and hence in homegrown radicalism, even if they do not solve other problems.”

Posner acknowledges the constitutional obstacles based on court decisions going to the 1960s (example here) but he notes that “before then, in the United States, people could be punished for engaging in dangerous speech. The U.S. government prosecuted Nazi sympathizers during World War II, draft protesters during World War I, and Southern sympathizers in the Union during the Civil War. It’s common sense that when a country is embroiled in a war, it should counter propaganda that could populate a third column with recruits. The pattern in American history—and, in the other democracies as well, even today—is that during times of national emergency, certain limits on speech will be tolerated.”

Yes, ISIS is a threat. But do we really want to go by the overkill of the past, such as the World War II era, when the government was herding even patriotic Japanese-Americans into camps? Consider also that for PR reasons, if nothing else, Facebook and the like aren’t exactly eager to be known as havens for ISIS. We don’t need laws in this case to incentivize them to take down terrorist rants.

Of course, many and perhaps even most of the ISIS sites are beyond the control of U.S. Internet companies. But here’s a proposal for that could address that issue, too—namely, decent treatment of America’s nonelite, Muslim youth included, so they are less vulnerable to terrorists threats. If nothing else, consider what we should stop doing. Why did a Texas school have police arrest young Ahmed Mohamed for showing off a digital clock made from a pencil case? If we want to turn nerds into terrorists, this is a pretty efficient way to do it. On the positive side, how about more money for outreach to youth in a variety of forms—for example, cell phone book clubs—that would address their needs and interest and bring them closer to the mainstream of American life. More Muslims as teachers and librarians, providing role models, could also help, long term. As it happens, even Hispanic and African-American librarians are rarer than they should be. Far better we aim for assimilation and inclusion than go Posner’s route. And, no, I’m not talking about Muslims giving up their religious and cultural identities. The American Islamic Congress, for example, could promote the creation of cell phone book clubs that taught both technology and accurate interpretations of Muslim teachings while enticing prospective members with popular culture deemed appropriate.

But wait. Why bother with such alternatives to censorship? Did you really think that Posner’s proposal reading restrictions would apply to everyone? If you’re an elite academic or journalist or other researcher, you needn’t worry. The law “could contain broad exemptions for people who can show that they have a legitimate interest in viewing ISIS websites. Press credentials, a track record of legitimate public commentary on blogs and elsewhere, academic affiliations, employment in a security agency, and the like would serve as adequate proof.” Thank you, Professor, but we already have enough de-facto licensing of the press by the U.S. government, First Amendment be damned. I’m a lifelong liberal Democrat and Obama supporter, I’ve appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Nation and even its philosophical opposite, National Review (William F. Buckley Jr. and I just happened to see eye to eye on the need for an Electronic Peace Corps), but the White House switchboard would not even connect me to the press office when I was seeking possible comment on library-related matters.  No government-recognized affiliations—and do I really want to trust Washington to evaluate me in other ways? Thank you very much, Professor, but neither you nor anyone else should tell me what I can even read. Furthermore, how to enforce such restrictions? Will Washington need to track people by IP addresses or other means?

I know: Posner’s proposal at this point is nothing more than that—a proposal. But keep in mind that Donald Trump, the most popular presidential candidate among the Republican faithful as of this writing, is even calling for a suspension of Muslim immigration into the U.S. Alas, Posner is far more respected within law than Trump is within politics. Simply put, Posner’s proposal is one whopper of a bad idea that deserves widespread condemnation now, before the standard policy hacks in D.C. consider and perhaps even embrace it.


  1. Interesting that the article appeared in Slate, which is quite liberal. And punishing online browsing doesn’t even come close to the level of punishing ‘microagressions’ on many college campuses. The equivalent of that would be to punish those visiting any website doing a story on ISIS in any context where someone else might see the screen and be upset.

    You didn’t follow that Texas story very long, taking the initial and usual media hysteria as accurate. It turned out that this digital clock wasn’t something the boy had built. It was just a 1970s-era one from Radio Shack that he’d opened up and spread out, the labor of maybe 15 minutes. He was no tech genius.

    And more importantly, the boy, almost certainly encouraged by his dad, was evasive at school, feeding the feeling in school officials and the police—not the most technologically sophisticate people around—that there might be something dangerous about that device.

    In short, the whole story was a media setup, intended by a father who is a radical Muslim, to create a fake story of Muslim persecution. Since it fits one of the media narratives, they fell for it hook, line and sinker. And since they rarely admit to serious blunders, the real story was suppressed when it came out. Nothing new there.


    Europe’s is far further along in failed assimilation that we are, and if you watch the documentaries from there, you’ll discover that ‘make nice’ efforts to change that Middle Eastern culture aren’t working. Why? Because that very niceness is interpreted as weakness and decadence and thus all the more reason for not changing. I saw one German documentary where the woman doing the interviewing was taken back by the very vehemence of that rejection by Turks who’d been in Germany for decades. They sense that Europe no longer believes to any real extent in its much trumped values and thus isn’t to be taken seriously.

    You see that in what is not being said about the 600+ gropings etc. on that Cologne square. You can guarantee that if lots of pretty young German girls were there, there were also lots of young, non-immigrant German men there, yet there are no reports of their doing something about these groping immigrants.

    Ditto the grooming of young girls for prostitution in the UK’s Rotherham that was covered up by local local authorities because those doing the grooming were Pakistanis being true to their culture. The problem lies in the weakness of the West not its intolerance. Like sharks with blood, radical Islam smells blood and is moving in for the kill.

    Long ago, in India some Indians protested the British ban on the country’s practice of burning a young, pretty new wife on the funeral pyre of some rich dead guy. When they brought up the 19th century equivalent of multiculturalism, one British official said in essence, “Well I guess you can continue with your custom of burning these women, but if you do, we’ll continue our cultural practice, which is to hang such people.”

    That’s precisely how radical Islam ought to be handled, with stern confidence that it is wrong and that wishy washy persecution of those merely visiting websites isn’t needed. Instead, we have a press that gloats and glorifies in art that puts a crucifix in urine but flees in terror at the thought of publishing cartoons featuring Mohammed. That’s not tolerance. That’s fear and cowardice. Radical Islamists not only know that, they know just how appealing the idea that they’re the winning side is to many lost youth.


    History is repeating itself, although perhaps this time perhaps with different results. How many Westerners know the significance of 9/11? Almost none because almost none know their history. Radical Muslims know is was the date of the Battle of Vienna in 1683.

    It marked the high water mark of Ottoman attempts to conquer and forcibly covert Europe to Islam. Long term, the increasing wealth Europe was deriving from the Americas gave it the resources to resist other efforts.


    And do you know what really matters. It’s children. I recently heard a speaker who pointed out that Merkel, who has no children, followed in office a man who has no children. Europe isn’t losing because it’s not being nice enough to win radical Islam to its POV. It’s losing because it now attaches so little importance to being French, German, or more broadly European, that they don’t even want children to carry that culture on. They want cars, summer homes and smartphones instead. Decadence in its death throes.

    The European elite think they can import those never-born children from the Middle East and that, if Europeans are only nice enough, they will somehow adopt a culture that even the Europeans themselves attach little value to. That’s not working and the average European is now sensing that.

    Long ago, G. K. Chesterton described the root problem when he noted how two different cultures responded to their conquest of Greece. Awed by Greek culture, he said, the Romans sat on Greece like a sponge, absorbing its ideas. In contrast, he pointed out that the Ottoman Muslims sat on Greece like a rock, learning nothing and absorbing nothing. Theirs was a culture that refuses to learn from other cultures. The Ottomans were happy to sell off Greek artifacts for the same reason that ISIS destroys Persian ones. They have no respect for any culture but their own.

    Or if you want to put this in terms of books, there are more books that are translated from English into Spanish each year than have been translated into Arabic in the last 1,000 years. Read that an other disturbing statistics here:

    Note too that the very Western groups who’re championing ‘make nice’ policies toward Muslims are the ones who’re most hostile to the non-violent religions: Jews, Catholics and Protestants. This is not tolerance. This is a cowardice that ‘dare not name its name.’

    Nutty attempts to prosecute mixed up teenagers who visit ISIS websites won’t alter that.

    –Michael W. Perry, editor of Chesterton on War and Peace

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