The Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. came to Capitol Hill on Thursday and pointedly declared that he is neither anti-Semitic nor racist, while giving a fiery defense of free speech and accusing the Biden administration and his political opponents of trying to silence him. him
Mr Kennedy, an environmental lawyer who has turned to anti-vaccine activism and trafficked in conspiracy theories, was referring to the storm that erupted after The New York Post published a video in which he told a private audience that Covid-19 was “attacking some. races disproportionately” and may have been “ethnically targeted” to do more harm to whites and blacks than to Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.
Mr. Kennedy, a scion of the Democratic political clan, appeared before the House Select Subcommittee on Federal Government Armaments — a panel created by Republicans to conduct a wide-ranging investigation of federal law enforcement and national security agencies. He said he has “never been anti-vax” and has taken all the recommended vaccines except the coronavirus vaccine.
Thursday’s hearing was devoted to accusations by Mr. Kennedy and Republicans that the Biden administration is trying to censor people with different opinions. It was rooted in a lawsuit filed last year by the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana and known as Missouri v. Biden, who accused the administration of colluding with social media to suppress free speech on Covid-19, elections and other issues.
The chairman of the subcommittee, Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio and an acolyte of former President Donald J. Trump, opened the hearing by citing an email that appeared in that case, in which a White House official asked Twitter to remove a tweet in which Mr. Kennedy suggested — without evidence — that baseball legend Hank Aaron might have died from the coronavirus vaccine.
The tweet, which has not been deleted, said Mr Aaron’s death was “part of a wave of suspicious deaths among the elderly” following vaccination. There was no such wave of suspicious deaths. Like many of Mr. Kennedy’s writings, his language was carefully worded; he did not explicitly link the vaccine to the deaths, but rather said the deaths occurred “closely after administration of #COVID #vaccines.”
Thursday’s session had all the makings of a Washington show. A long line had formed outside the hearing room in the Rayburn House Office Building by the time Mr. Kennedy arrived. Kennedy supporters stood outside the building holding a Kennedy 2024 banner and homemade posters. “Abolish War,” it read.
Despite the theater, the hearing raised questions about free speech in a democratic society: Is misinformation protected by the First Amendment? When is it appropriate for the federal government to try to prevent the spread of falsehoods?
Democrats accused Republicans of giving Mr. Kennedy a forum for bigotry and pseudoscience. “Free speech is not absolute,” said Delegate Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands, the top Democrat on the subcommittee. “The Supreme Court has said that. And someone else’s free speech that is allowed — hateful, abusive rhetoric — doesn’t need to be promoted in the halls of the People’s House.”
Even by Mr Kennedy’s standards for stirring up controversy, his recent comments on Covid-19 were shocking. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democrat of Florida, who is Jewish, tried unsuccessfully Thursday to force the panel into executive session; she insisted that Mr. Kennedy violated House rules by making “despicable anti-Semitic and anti-Asian comments.” She also helped organize Democrats to sign a letter calling on the Republican leadership to disinvite him from the hearing.
Mr. Kennedy waved the letter during his opening remarks. “I know a lot of people who wrote this letter,” he said. “I don’t believe there is one person who signed this letter who believes I am anti-Semitic.”
Mr. Kennedy attracted supporters from the fringes of both political parties. He made common cause with Republicans and Trump supporters who accuse the federal government of conspiring with social media to suppress conservative content.
Thursday’s hearing was billed as a session to “examine the federal government’s role in censoring Americans, the Missouri v. Biden case and Big Tech’s collusion with out-of-control government agencies to silence speech.” One of the lawyers involved in that case, D. John Sauer, also testified, as did Emma-Jo Morris, a journalist at Breitbart News, and Maya Wiley, the president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Mr. Kennedy showed a flash of the old Kennedy style, invoking his uncle, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, a legislative giant who often worked across the aisle. He called for kindness and respect, recalling how his uncle brought Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican with whom he partnered on important legislation, to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass.
And Mr. Kennedy was joined by a former congressman: Dennis J. Kucinich, who served in the House as a Democrat from Ohio and is Mr. Kennedy’s campaign manager.
“We must uphold the Constitution of the United States, which was written for troubled times,” Mr. Kennedy once declared, “and that must be the main compass for all our activities.”
Amid the vitriol, members of both parties did rally around a lament from Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia.
“I’ve been in this Congress for 15 years, and I never thought we would descend to this level of Orwellian dystopia,” Mr. Connolly said.
Representatives Chip Roy, Republican of Texas, and Harriet M. Hageman, Republican of Wyoming, nodded and smiled. “I agree with that,” they said in unison.