A recent federal government terrorism bulletin warned that misinformation about voter fraud and COVID-19 is contributing to an increased threat of domestic extremist attacks.
Some are using this February document to falsely claim that President Joe Biden is trying to criminalize free speech.
A Facebook post by former Alaska Governor and Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin shows a video with the caption: “Senator Blackburn exposes Admin Biden’s attempt to criminalize free speech.” The video shows a speech given in the Senate by Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.
The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat fake news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Learn more about our partnership with Facebook.)
(Screenshot from Facebook)
It’s possible that such a bulletin could chill citizens’ speech if they believe the government is monitoring their Facebook posts, but the bulletin makes no statement about the criminalization of free speech, say experts with whom we talked. And while not made clear in this bulletin, DHS and the White House have repeatedly expressed in other documents the administration’s intent to protect Americans’ First Amendment rights.
Palin did not respond to PolitiFact’s email requesting comment or proof of her claim.
What the newsletter says
The Feb. 7 bulletin said the United States finds itself in a “heightened threat environment fueled by multiple factors, including an online environment filled with false or misleading stories and conspiracy theories,” and other forms of disinformation.
He warned that foreign powers are amplifying these lies to harm the United States. The bulletin says “grievances associated” with false or misleading narratives about voter fraud and COVID-19 “inspired violent extremist attacks in 2021.” The bulletin does not cite any examples, but it is likely a reference to the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol, which resulted in the arrest of more than 775 people, including some defendants who were carrying weapons, attacked police officers or were associated with extremist groups.
“We’ve seen real damage from election misinformation,” said Jesse Littlewood, vice president of campaigns for Common Cause, a voter advocacy group. He cited the attack on the Capitol. (The Common Cause Education Fund provided financial support to PolitiFact.)
“It is abundantly clear that we live in a time of heightened threats of violence against election officials and election workers, fueled by election disinformation and conspiracy theories and like a pile of dry wood, all it takes is a spark to ignite violence in the real world,” Littlewood wrote. in an email.
The bulletin encourages citizens to report potential threats to authorities. Nowhere, however, does it suggest that they report people for holding dissenting views, but rather for “suspicious activity” or “threats of violence”.
Ben Wizner, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said Palin’s social media take on the DHS document is “beyond hyperbole.”
The DHS bulletin “establishes no effort to criminalize free speech,” Wizner told PolitiFact. “At most, it establishes that the government has decided to keep tabs on people because of free speech, which may or may not be appropriate in different circumstances, but it certainly doesn’t criminalize it.”
DHS bulletins repeatedly warn against misinformation
The DHS under Biden has repeatedly warned in a terrorism bulletin of the dangers of false narratives and conspiracy theories. This is the fifth newsletter of this type since taking office.
In the first-ever bulletin on January 27, 2021, DHS warned that “perceived grievances fueled by false narratives may continue to mobilize to incite or commit violence.” The May, August and November newsletters also touched on misinformation, which sparked false allegations that the government was calling Trump supporters terrorists.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hatred and Extremism, said it’s a mistake to say the DHS report seeks to criminalize free speech. He said the document accurately summarizes the “consensus of trends seen within the extremism monitoring profession.”
Levin said conspiracy theories and false narratives are key elements of online recruitment for radicalization.
Levin said only a fraction of today’s conspiracy theories pose a direct threat, but the spread and acceptance of misinformation can impact “small informal cells and idiosyncratic loners” both here and ‘abroad.
Levin pointed to violent incidents in 2021, including one where a Maryland man was accused of killing his pharmacist brother because of COVID-19 vaccines he believed the government was using to poison people.
Warnings about conspiracy theories aren’t unique to this administration, though Biden has increased his focus on domestic extremism in the wake of the Capitol attack.
DHS only published two bulletins on terrorism threats in 2020 and those focused on external threats. However, President Donald Trump’s Acting Director of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, released a Homeland Threat Assessment in October 2020 which, while primarily focused on white supremacy and Russian disinformation, discussed conspiracy theories. and political commentary as contributing to possible threats from domestic violent extremists.
While campaigning for president, Biden vowed to work for a new national terrorism law that “respects free speech and civil liberties.”
In June 2021, the White House released a National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, which also mentioned misinformation and affirmed the administration’s intent to protect “the foundation of American civil rights and civil liberties.”
Free speech issues
Alan Chen, a professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law and an expert on free speech issues, said the government can restrict free speech in two ways: either by imposing criminal or civil penalties on a person because of their opinions, or by creating conditions that may have a chilling effect on their expression.
“There’s nothing in the bulletin that falls into that first category,” Chen said. On the second point, he said Blackburn seemed to imply the document could chill dissenter speech, which he said is possible.
But the message’s claim that it shows the Biden administration is trying to criminalize speech is false on two counts, he said. The government expressing an opinion on the effect of election misinformation does not mean it imposes a sanction on those who believe the election was stolen, Chen said. And the bulletin makes a verifiable claim that domestic extremists continue to advocate violence in response to false election claims. Threats of violence are not speech protected by the First Amendment, he said.
The ACLU’s Wizner said calling for the overthrow of the US government online is protected speech, but nothing in the bulletin criminalizes such speech. While there may be concerns about people being watched because of their ideology, he said, Palin and Blackburn exaggerate them.
“My message is, (it’s) good to keep an eye on the government because they don’t have a great historical record of staying within limits when doing domestic security-related surveillance, but the “The assertion here is beyond hyperbole. It’s just untrue,” Wizner said.
A video shared on Facebook by Palin said Senator Blackburn exposed “Administrator Biden’s attempt to criminalize free speech.”
In the video, Blackburn criticizes a bulletin from the National Terrorism Advisory System. The DHS document cites false narratives and conspiracy theories being shared online as a contributing factor in a “heightened threat environment.”
But simply drawing attention to online disinformation is not an attempt to criminalize free speech, and nowhere in the document does the administration advocate a policy that would criminalize it. The Biden administration has repeatedly expressed its intent to protect free speech in other documents related to the role of disinformation in domestic extremism.
We rate this claim as false.