Sunday, January 09, 2011

Violent political rhetoric and the First Amendment

I keep thinking that I need to write something about what happened in Tuscon yesterday, but I'm not sure exactly what to say, except that this sort of thing has to stop.

I think it was interesting that during a news conference late yesterday afternoon, the Sheriff of the county Tuscon is in (sorry, I'm winging this and I don't know the name of the county and I want to get this out before I forget what I want to say, so I'm not going to stop to look it up) called out the "vitriolic rhetoric" of some radio and television broadcasters as contributing to a climate which can inflame those with "mental issues" (which is how he described the young man in custody for the shootings), that they are "more susceptible" to the influence of such things Nevada candidate Sharron Angle's statements about "Second Amendment solutions" and a map posted around the Internet that marked with firearm crosshairs the districts of congressmen and women that some on the right want to see defeated.

Well, this morning on some of the Sunday morning political talk shows, some were taking issue with the Sheriff's comments and suggetion that the nation needs to do some soul-searching about the character of some recent political rhetoric. There were complaints that since we don't know the shooting suspect's motivations, the comments by the Sheriff were premature and inappropriate. They also seemed to be trying to say that to complain about what some candidates and pundits have said that could be construed as promoting violence against some other candidates is tantamount to violating the First Amendment.

First of all, I don't think that what ends up being identified as the shooter's motive has anything to do with the question. Even if he was just a "lone nut" (something the Sheriff said yesterday afternoon that his department was not at all convinced was the case) whose motivation was not so much political as pathological, his obvious target was a member of Congress, one who had been threatened by those on the right before and who had been targeted on the list that accompanied that map with the crosshairs on it. That alone, regardless of motivation, makes the discussion of recent political rhetoric appropriate.

Second, but no less important, I beleive it is settled law that the First Amendment does not cover speech and actions that can be interpreted as incitements to riot or violence. You can't get up in front of a crowd and urge them to run amok. And you can't say things about using "Second Amendment remedies" with a wink and a nod. In saying that, you might well be speaking metaphorically (although sometimes, I don't think those who say those things are being metaphorical at all). The problem is, some of the people who are hearing you say it might believe you mean what you say literally, and take it upon themselves to act on it. What you say might not even be actionable, in terms of being charged as an accomplice in an act like the shootings in Tuscon. But my position is that those who say such things don't have entirely clean hands when such events do occur.

This does not mean that I'm advocating that there should not be discussions in which political differences are aired. Not at all. Those disucssions are fully covered by the First Amendment. You can't stop someone saying that they don't agree with another person or with a government policy. You can't stop someone speculating about events, even about dire conspiracies that are mostly in the minds of those who believe in them. They are protected by the First Amendment. But threatening harm to someone who does not agree with you, or who you think is doing something politically nefarious, is most assuredly not covered by the amendment, just like yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater is not covered by free speech guarantees.

I think the bottom line in all of this is that our society (and I mean that globally) needs to get over the idea of some people that just because they are angry about something, they have the right to go out and kill who they are angry at and maybe a bunch more people, just because they are angry. Because it isn't just political. We see it all the time these days, sadly, in workplace shootings, in school rampages, and in personal relationships gone bad.

It's madness (but not, in most cases, clinical insanity). And it has to stop.

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