Loretta Lynch walks back comments on prosecuting anti-Muslim speech... (well, kind of...)
Attorney General Loretta Lynch Monday appeared to recalibrate remarks she made last week that suggested the Justice Department could investigate speech deemed hostile towards Muslims.
"Of course, we prosecute deeds and not words," she said at a press conference Monday to announce an unrelated civil rights investigation into the Chicago Police Department.
Some conservatives criticized Lynch for her comments to a Muslim civil rights group, where she lamented "the ability of people to issue hateful speech of all types from the anonymity of a screen."
Speaking to a Muslim Advocates dinner in Arlington, Va., Lynch affirmed that "this is a country that is based upon free speech." However, she went on to suggest that the Justice Department would "take action" when such speech "edges towards violence, when we see the potential to lift...that mantle of anti-Muslim rhetoric."
First Amendment precedents generally protect speech, even hateful speech, from punishment unless the comments are intended to incite direct action against specific individuals or in a specific place.
Lynch's comments Monday seemed to better capture that balance by focusing on those who might act out, rather than those who may be fomenting trouble.
"We always have a concern when we see the rhetoric rising against any particular group in America, that it might inspire others to violent action — and that violent action is what we would have to deal with," Lynch told journalists at Justice Department headquarters. She also urged Americans "not to give into fear" in the wake of the apparent terrorist attack in California. "So, [what] we're focused on, obviously, is protecting all of the people under the ambit of the Department of Justice."
In an interview Sunday about the San Bernardino shootings that killed 14 people, Lynch said she was "not sure" which ideology the San Bernardino shooters were driven by. However, hours later in an Oval Office address, President Barack Obama discussed the shootings and the need for the U.S. to "destroy" the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant group.
Asked by POLITICO why she was reluctant to publicly say even that the shootings were inspired by ISIL, Lynch stressed the need for investigators to keep an open mind to all possibilities.
"At this point…we’re not prepared to limit any particular ideology to what may have inspired these individuals," the attorney general said. "There are a number of groups that are on social media, looking to encourage people to commit acts of violence within the homeland, so at this point we simply do not want to rule anything out."