In response to the criticism by Mark Steyn and Andrew Stuttaford about his weekend comments on free speech and Koran burning, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) called me this afternoon to flesh out his thoughts on the matter.
Here is the transcript:
NRO: Some of my National Review colleagues are being pretty rough on you today. What is your response to some of the outrage on the right about your comments regarding free speech?
GRAHAM: General Petraeus sent a statement out to all news organizations yesterday, urging our government to [condemn] Koran burning. Free speech probably allows that, but I don’t like that. I don’t like burning the flag under the idea of free speech. That bothers me; I have been one of the chief sponsors of legislation against burning the flag. I don’t like the idea that these people picket funerals of slain servicemen. If I had my way, that wouldn’t be free speech. So there are a lot of things under the guise of free speech that I think are harmful and hateful.
When General Petraeus wants us to say something because our troops are at risk, I’m glad to help. I don’t believe that killing someone is an appropriate reaction to burning the Koran, the Bible, or anything else, like I said Sunday; but those who believe that free speech allows you to burn the flag, I disagree. Those who want free speech to allow you to go to a funeral and picket a family, and giving more misery to their lives than they have already suffered, I disagree. And if I could do something about behavior that puts our troops at risk, I would. But in this case, you probably can’t. It’s not about the Koran; it’s about putting our troops at risk. And I think all of us owe the troops the support we’re capable of giving.
Any time an American acts in a way that puts our troops at risk, I feel the need to speak out. I don’t have any hesitation telling the Karzai government that they should not put someone in jail for converting to Christianity. I think that is an absurd law, and we have pushed back against that. I don’t have a problem condemning somebody who burns the Koran or any other religious teaching, particularly when it puts our troops at risk. If we don’t realize that we have thousands of American soldiers in Muslim countries, and that what we do and say here influences their security, then we are just disconnected from the world as it is.
NRO: But don’t you understand the concerns about a U.S. senator determining the limits of free speech?
GRAHAM: Not really. Nobody said anything to me when I said that you can’t burn the flag. People say that is free speech, but I don’t agree. What I was saying is, if I could hold people accountable, I would. But I know that we can’t. I just don’t like the idea of free speech being used as a reason to put our troops at risk. They’ve got enough problems already. I really believe that responsibility ought to be part of free speech. You can’t yell “fire” in a theater. There are a lot of things that you can’t do under the guise of free speech. I just hate it when somebody here, some crazy person, acts in a way that puts our troops in jeopardy. I really feel the need to condemn that. To me, that is not a responsible use of free speech.
NRO: Couldn’t any kind of speech be interpreted as something that could put the troops at risk? Something the president says? Something a U.S. senator says? You could point to any speech and blame it for something.
GRAHAM: Well, that’s what I’m saying. I agree with that. We live in a free-speech society. But when Harry Reid said that the war was lost in Iraq, I didn’t like it. But he has the right to say it. I just want us to be responsible and realize that we are at war. I guess that is my point.
NRO: So you don’t want to do anything legally to limit speech. You’re making a political point.
GRAHAM: Right. I want to push back and say, “be responsible.” But I would vote for a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning, okay.