Don Edwards, D-Calif., is retiring at the end of this term, and the Bill of Rights will lose its most consistent protector in Washington. Sometimes alone, or with others who are not intimidated by popular fears, Edwards has tried to defend chronically vulnerable individual liberties from attack by his colleagues and from the executive branch.
Sometimes he succeeds, but not on Feb. 23. Up for debate was a resolution that the House condemn the speech given by Khalid Abdul Muhammad at New Jersey's Kean College on Nov. 29 as "outrageous hatemongering of the most vicious and vile kind."
For 361 members of the House, the resolution was not in the least troublesome. Nor had it been for the Senate which, on Feb. 2, acclaimed a similar condemnation of the increasingly renowned Muhammad by a 97-0 vote.
A parade of House members testified to their abhorrence of the multiple bigotries in Muhammad's three-hour lecture. Although anti-Semitism was at its poisonous core, the messenger from the Nation of Islam also trumpeted his contempt for gays and lesbians, Catholics and all otherwise unenumerated whites.
Who could possibly vote against so satisfying a resolution? The day before the floor debate, Edwards sent a letter to his colleagues asking them to think beyond the righteous moment to the precedent that would be set by a formal congressional vote in favor of condemning a speech.
"Any member," he said, "has an absolute right (in or out of the House) to condemn the Kean College speech or any other specific expression of bigotry and racism . . . however, we would cross a constitutional line were we to vote official congressional disapproval of this specific speech.
"The resolution concerning the Kean College speech makes the Congress into an official ratings board, scanning the landscape for speeches to be labeled "Condemned by Congress.' If we officially condemn this one speech, how can we not condemn others?"
Keep in mind, he emphasized, "the resolution is an official act of the government." Liberals in the House who object to attempted government censorship of the arts were not moved by Edwards' point that "we cannot use the power of the government to condemn speech, however offensive." Even, for instance, John Lewis, D-Ga., spoke and voted for the resolution. "We have a moral obligation," Lewis said, "to speak out against bigotry."
The First Amendment, however, does not speak of a moral obligation to justify an official congressional censorship board.
"Will we condemn books and magazines next?" Edwards asked. "Offensive movies? The racist or sexist comments of one another?"
Edwards, on the floor, tried to show his colleagues how the condemnatory resolution might actually benefit its target:
"He will be the only person in world history, to the best of my knowledge, whose speech has been officially condemned by the U.S. Congress. I can see the advertisements all over the world, especially in those parts of the world that do not look kindly on the United States: "Speech by Mr. Muhammad tonight. This speech has been condemned by the United States Congress."'
A member of the House influenced by Edwards' focus on the constitutional ramifications of the resolution was Bob Filner, D-Calif. "As a Jew and civil rights activist, I was sickened at the remarks of Khalid Abdul Muhammad . . . (but) as a member of Congress, I am sworn to protect the Constitution. Freedom of speech _ no matter how abhorrent _ is one of the bulwarks of our constitutional liberties. . . . Does a majority decide at any point what speech is abhorrent?"
Henry Hyde, R-Ill., has long been a paladin of free speech, but Khalid Muhammad wore him down. After all, Hyde said during the debate, the resolution does not call "for any civilian or criminal penalties." It does not, but both Hyde and Tom Lantos, D-Calif., who introduced the resolution, conceded that they knew of no previous official condemnation by Congress of an American for a statement he has made.
Henry Hyde might reflect on the chilling fact that not even Joe McCarthy was able to make a majority of his brothers and sisters change the First Amendment to officially exclude speech that the majority finds outrageous. Khalid Abdul Muhammad has now taken his singular place in American history _ as the House and the Senate applaud themselves.
Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights.
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