Sen. Feinstein: The Anarchist Cookbook Not Protected Speech

The Anarchist Cookbook is “not, in my view, protected by the First Amendment and should be removed from the internet.” This was a reactionary statement released last Thursday from California Senator Dianne Feinstein in response to the recent arrest of two women who are accused of plotting a terror attack in New York City.

In a search of the women’s homes, police officials not only found materials for making bombs, but they also found notes about bomb-making taken from the Anarchist Cookbook as well as poems and other literature from an al Qaeda publication, Inspire magazine. “I am particularly struck that the alleged bombers made use of online bombmaking guides like the Anarchist Cookbook and Inspire Magazine,” commented Senator Feinstein. “These documents are not, in my view, protected by the First Amendment and should be removed from the Internet.”

But why exactly shouldn’t this book be protected by the First Amendment? The point of the amendment itself is not to create a subjective differentiation between materials that a person or group of people might find inappropriate and thus not protected. The point of the amendment is to protect free expression from censorship. As such, those who use the information — not the expressive work — should be held accountable for the actions they chose to perform with the information that they gain. The First Amendment does not protect a few very narrow categories of speech (such as obscenity) and The Anarchist Cookbook does not fall into those categories (despite repeated attempts to get it banned).

As someone who works to uphold the constitutional rights of US citizen, Senator Feinstein’s comment  is not only misinformed, but is offensive. It is not the first time, though, that she has been questioned by free speech activists for her inflammatory comments about what and who is to be protected under the First Amendment. In 2013, in a Congressional effort to pass laws that would protect journalists from governmental interference, Senator Feinstein tried to define “real” journalism as a “salaried agent” from a reputable media company, not a “shoestring operation with volunteers and writers who are not paid.” Such a definition would exclude bloggers and independent journalists from protection, an untenable idea in the modern age.

As former CBLDF contributor Joe Izenman pointed out in covering the story, the world is a changing place and Senator Feinstein’s views are archaic if not detrimental to contemporary journalism and free speech as a whole as physical and digital media spaces continue to evolve and change. This is something that The Anarchist Cookbook creator William Powell also noted in a recent interview with Harper’s Magazine. The book has tested the bounds of free expression since its publication in 1971, and Powell himself has disowned it, but attacks on the book have repeatedly failed. Further, similar information is available online from multiple sources, so any effort Feinstein put into banning The Anarchist Cookbook would be futile at best.

Along with the recent terror plot, Powell’s book has been referenced by or found in the possession of many people who have committed crimes in the recent past. It is a horrible thought that someone could appropriate information from a book (which was originally intended to keep its author out of combat in Vietnam) and use that to harm other people. But do the actions of a few make the book any less worth protecting? So far, the answer is no. In protecting the integrity of information, the First Amendment protects all types of materials that some might find objectionable. It also doesn’t allow officials to displace the responsibility of certain acts from the individual who perpetrated them to the books that they read. Once again, Senator Feinstein fails to make this distinction.

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!