This past week, shortly after he announced he was mounting a second run for the presidency, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s 2012 presidential nominee, shocked libertarians with his declaration (to at least three news sources) that the face covering worn by many Muslim women, the burqa, should be banned from public places. Though Johnson later retracted the comment (after much condemnation from libertarians), it provides evidence that his instincts on free expression, particularly of unpopular views, swing statist rather than libertarian.
Justifying his support for the burqa ban, Johnson told Reason, the wearing of a burqa reflects a political statement more so than a religious practice. Thus, to Johnson, a ban would not be unconstitutional. However, the landmark Supreme Court decision of Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist. held the wearing of certain clothing (anti-war armbands) was protected political speech. The Supreme Court has continually reaffirmed, most recently in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, that political speech is a fundamental right under the First Amendment that may not be limited based on viewpoint in public fora. Perhaps Johnson missed that lesson in civics class.
Nevertheless, the problem with Johnson’s misunderstanding of the First Amendment is more than academic. To Johnson, unpopular political speech such as wearing a burqa (which he believes represents oppressive Sharia Law) can be banned because, well, the majority disapproves of the speech. This view on speech entails a dangerous precedent for dissent in America. How can there be dissent if dissenting views can be silenced in public spaces?
Though Reason expressed surprise at Johnson’s proclamation, those following Johnson closely enough could have sensed his statist streak on speech. As recently as August, as he mulled a run, Johnson sent out an e-mail blast in which he deemed the term “anchor babies” as “offensive.”
This rhetoric repeats the language game of political correctness. Political correctors like Johnson, attack the words of the dissent based on how their language affects someone’s feelings. This ignores the substance in the words of the dissent and silences potential nonconformists who wish to avoid offense. As argued here, use of the State follows.
By arguing that as president he could sign a bill into law banning certain forms of unpopular expression, Johnson took the leap to involving the State.
Clearly, Johnson is not the candidate of free speech. Rather, he appears inclined to use the State to enforce moral guidelines and silence dissent.