Richard Stengel, the point man on state-owned media for Joe Biden’s transition team, has said protection of hateful speech that can provoke violence is a “design flaw” in the Constitution and should be fixed with “new guardrails.”
Stengel, a former MSNBC contributor, is transition team leader for the US agency for Global Media, which includes broadcasters Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. He’s likely to head the agency if Biden becomes president in January. Ironically, that means Washington’s foreign propaganda outlets, which traditionally have promoted America’s founding principles, would be overseen by a man with restrictive views on the most fundamental of those tenets – freedom of speech.
“All speech is not equal,” Stengel wrote last year in an op-ed published by the Washington Post. “And where truth cannot drive out lies, we must add new guardrails. I’m all for protecting thought that we hate, but not speech that incites hate.”
Stengel gave the example of “sophisticated Arab diplomats” who had questioned why constitutional rights would allow a US citizen to burn a copy of the Koran. “It’s a fair question,” he said. “Yes, the First Amendment protects the thought that we hate, but it should not protect hateful speech that can cause violence by one group against another. In an age when everyone has a megaphone, that seems like a design flaw.”
Another example that Stengel cited was alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. “Our foremost liberty protects any bad actors who hide behind it to weaken our society,” he wrote. “Russian agents assumed fake identities, promulgated false narratives and spread lies on Twitter and Facebook – all protected by the First Amendment.”
Stengel added that it’s time to consider hate-speech laws, like those enacted by other countries to discourage incitement of racial and religious tensions after World War II. He argued that mass shooters Dylann Roof and Omar Mateen were consumers of hate speech, which created a climate that made their heinous crimes more likely.
Stengel, formerly editor of Time magazine, was a US State Department undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs in the Obama-Biden administration. He referred to his former State Department role as “chief propagandist.”
“I’m not against propaganda,” Stengel reportedly told the Council on Foreign Relations in 2018. “Every country does it, and they have to do it to their own population. And I don’t necessarily think that’s awful.”
That Biden would choose a media chief who calls for restrictions on free speech came as little surprise to Fox News contributor Lisa Boothe, who tweeted, “Of course he does.” Another Twitter commenter took issue with Stengel’s free-speech curtailments being based on the offended party’s propensity for violence: “They are 100 percent advocating differential speech protections based on decibel level of complaints.”
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