The flimsy philosophizing of Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House and aspiring presidential candidate, isn’t designed to bear any great weight. For many years, he has been willing to say anything that would win him the public attention and political power he still craves. Yet in the mainstream media and among Republicans, his intellectual pretensions are often taken seriously — and when he promotes authoritarian “solutions” to national problems, that must be taken seriously, too.

His latest insight is that America can survive only if we impose severe curbs on freedom of speech.

At a recent event in New Hampshire — where he shows up often these days — Gingrich explained why he believes that the First Amendment must be reconsidered in these trying times. He chose to deliver these remarks at an annual dinner held in memory of the late publisher of the Manchester Union-Leader, honoring individuals who stand up for free speech.

We confront an existential threat, he said, “that will inevitably lead us to want to know what is said in every suspect place in the country, that will lead us to learn how to close down every website that is dangerous, and it will lead us to a very severe approach to people who advocate the killing of Americans and advocate the use of nuclear or biological weapons.”

He went on to advocate measures that “use every technology we can find to break up [the terrorists’] capacity to use the Internet, to break up their capacity to use free speech, and to go after people who want to kill us, to stop them from recruiting people before they get to reach out and convince young people to destroy their lives while destroying us.”

Such vague prescriptions sound sensible enough. Certainly no sane person wants terrorists using the Internet, and nobody wants them recruiting young suicide bombers on the Internet, either. The problem is in the details. Exactly how the former speaker would deter the enemies of freedom from using free speech was anything but clear.

About a week after his New Hampshire speech, he expanded on his remarks in an article for the ultraconservative Union-Leader newspaper. “The fact is that not all speech is permitted under the Constitution,” he wrote.

He noted the ominous remarks of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the outreach by Hezbollah to sympathizers in Latin America, and the stated determination of Islamist militants to “use the Internet for the sake of jihad.” He suggested that the government be empowered to shut down websites that recruit suicide bombers and urged “an expeditious review of current domestic law to see what changes can be made within the protections of the First Amendment to ensure that free speech protection claims are not used to protect the advocacy of terrorism, violent conduct or the killing of innocents.”

That’s only a sample of the many big mouthfuls of rhetoric emanating from Mr. Gingrich on this topic, but you get the idea.

When he appeared on “Meet the Press” Dec. 17, host Tim Russert asked him how his fantasy would work. Who would define such murky offenses as “advocacy of terrorism” or “violent conduct”?

Gingrich seemed to be annoyed by the question. His answer was not only unimpressive but also unintentionally funny.

“You close down any website that is jihadist,” he said.

“But who makes that judgment?” insisted Russert.

“Look, I — you can appoint three federal judges if you want to and say, ‘Review this stuff and tell us which ones to close down.’ I would just like to have them be federal judges who’ve served in combat,” replied Gingrich.

Considering the source, that was a remarkably weird response. A panel of three judges who’ve served in combat? As a qualification for making crucial decisions about combating terrorists, combat service would surely eliminate Gingrich — a certified chicken hawk who loves war but successfully avoided the Vietnam draft — from running for president.

Logic aside, he has offered at least one example of how he would apply his new set of speech standards. He believes that the six Muslim scholars who were removed from a plane in Minneapolis last month for such suspicious behavior as praying in the airport “should have been arrested and prosecuted for pretending to be terrorists.”

That ridiculous assertion could only have thrilled the leaders of Al Qaeda. Nothing they can ever put on a website or videotape will be nearly as effective in encouraging young Muslims to hate America and reject freedom as Gingrich’s cloddish demagogy.

Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer (www.observer.com). To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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