06/01/2011 01:18 pm ET Updated Aug 01, 2011

Libertarian Rand Paul Is Suddenly Very Concerned About The Right To Free Assembly

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is usually described as a doctrinaire libertarian, and in many of his policy complaints, this is reliably borne out. For example, Paul is of the opinion that the Americans With Disabilities Act is an egregious infringement on liberty, when the "common sense solution" is obviously to herd wheelchair-bound workers to the first floor of every office building.

That's what Paul believes and he usually sticks to it. So I'm as surprised as the next guy to learn that Paul now believes that certain people should be jailed for merely exercising their right to assemble under the Constitution of the United States.

According to Alex Seitz-Wald, Paul's sudden shift on civil liberties all went down on Sean Hannity's radio show last Friday:

PAUL: I'm not for profiling people on the color of their skin, or on their religion, but I would take into account where they've been traveling and perhaps, you might have to indirectly take into account whether or not they've been going to radical political speeches by religious leaders. It wouldn't be that they are Islamic. But if someone is attending speeches from someone who is promoting the violent overthrow of our government, that's really an offense that we should be going after -- they should be deported or put in prison.

Hey, now! Suddenly we're deporting and jailing people for attending speeches? Um ...

Paul's suggestion that people be imprisoned or deported for merely attending a political speech would be a fairly egregious violation on the First Amendment, not to mention due process. What if someone attended a radical speech as a curious bystander? Should they too be thrown in prison? And who defines what is considered so "radical" that it is worth imprisonment?

These are good questions. I'd hate to see Rand Paul get hoisted with his own petard. (Dearie me! Am I even still allowed to talk about petards in public?)

Well, what do the courts say about the matter? Here's Glenn Greenwald:

Indeed, the First Amendment not only protects the mere "attending" of a speech "promoting the violent overthrow of our government," but also the giving of such a speech. The government is absolutely barred by the Free Speech clause from punishing people even for advocating violence. That has been true since the Supreme Court's unanimous 1967 decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio, which overturned the criminal conviction of a Ku Klux Klan leader who had threatened violence against political officials in a speech.

See, that's what I thought. Naturally, I have no doubt that somewhere out there someone is assembled in a gathering of free citizens, listening to someone discuss the violent overthrow of the government. I'm not unconcerned about that, but the standard libertarian line I grew up with was, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

At any rate, there is already a criminal statute that penalizes the agreement of a group to commit a criminal act -- it's called "conspiracy." It mainly focuses on persons who are actively and overtly participating in plans to commit a crime. I'm guessing that one good way to evaluate whether or not a "radical group" is going to escalate from merely talking about overthrowing the government to actually pursuing the furtherance of such a plan is to let people freely attend that group's speeches without fear that they'll be clapped in irons.

Rand Paul, Supposed Defender Of Civil Liberties, Calls For Jailing People Who Attend 'Radical Political Speeches' [ThinkProgress]

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