“Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom” and other terrorist recruitment material is being printed and distributed throughout the United States, Matthew Olsen, former head counsel for the National Security Agency, said during a guest lecture in a University of Wisconsin professor’s political science class Tuesday.
In front of Professor Donald Downs’ class on the First Amendment, Olsen said the material could be protected under the First Amendment and discussed where the government draws the line on the coveted “freedom of speech.”
Under the First Amendment, American citizens have the freedom of religion, speech, press and the right to peaceably assemble.
Olsen is currently the head of the National Center for Counterterrorism and is concerned with the state of the country’s national security and freedom. The First Amendment “coincides with national security and freedom,” and the most important role of the state is to protect it, Olsen said. The role of the First Amendment is to make sure the government is held accountable for its actions, he said.
“Our freedom of speech enables us to prevent excesses that we as the people do not want and makes sure that this country is under the consent of the governed,” Olsen said.
Olsen discussed three aspects concerning the freedom of speech amendment: whether works of speech promoting terrorism are protected under the First Amendment, what role the government plays in drawing the line and how the government prosecutes members of the press that leak classified information.
The most troubling issue to Olsen is a magazine titled “Inspire,” promoted by Al-Qaeda that discusses various aspects of terrorism such as how to make a bomb and what to expect when becoming a jihadist. Olsen said he did not know whether the magazine was protected under the First Amendment.
Student opinions on the magazine ranged from “This is a huge threat to our society,” to “It doesn’t target anyone specifically and this information could be found by anyone at any time.” After a vote, students in the class were in slight favor of protecting the distribution of the magazine under the First Amendment.
Olsen added the government can draw the line on freedom of speech in instances where the speech has the intention to hurt a specific target.
“If there is a specific target, then it is no longer science, it is no longer just accessible information. It is an attempt to hurt and that’s when the government can step in,” Olsen said. “There has to be suspicion of terror for the government to step in.”
Olsen also discussed if the government could punish government information leakers and if those people have the right to print whatever they want under the First Amendment.
“The U.S. government has never prosecuted a newspaper or a single journalist before,” Olsen said. “But we do have the right to.”
Olsen said with information traveling at unprecedented speeds, the country has a “war on leaks.” Olsen said he hopes freedom of speech can forever be protected.
Downs is an adviser to The Badger Herald.