Free Speech Means People Can Disagree with Yours
In the wake of the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Congress introduced several legislative proposals all with the intent of ameliorating the conditions and circumstances that may have led to the shooting. Some are downright hilarious. Republican Representative Louie Gohmert has introduced a bill that would allow members of Congress to carry guns inside the Capitol. (Don’t all visitors to the Capitol have to pass through metal detectors? Wouldn’t the only people able to shoot Congressmembers be other Congressmembers? The logic—it baffles!) Others are wholly impracticable. Republican Representative Peter King has proposed legislation that would ban guns within 1,000 feet of federal officials. (What if you’re a gun aficionado that lives next door to a Congressperson’s D.C. apartment or simply have a restaurant next to your house where officials dine?) Yet others are, sadly, downright unconstitutional.
In a heartbreakingly short-sighted move, Democratic Representative Bob Brady says he intends to introduce legislation that would criminalize the use of threatening imagery against politicians and judges. For the record, I am wildly embarrassed that someone who is more or less on my political team wouldn’t see free speech snafus all over the place here. The purpose behind the bill, according to Rep. Brady, is to provide the same protection given to the president to, in his words, a “congressman, senator, or federal judge.” Leaving aside the fact that Representative Bob Brady refers to all 435 members of Congress as “men,” regardless of their actual sex, I can’t imagine that such legislation is—even if it is by some stretch of the imagination constitutional—a good idea.
A related article in The Hill suggests that the bill would ban “language or symbols” that could be “perceived” as threatening or inciting violence against federal officials. Uh, perceived? Just who is going to be in charge of deciding whether a particular phrase, blog posting, or image falls within the reach of that statute? I literally never thought I would say this, but I think I agree with Sarah Palin on one point: political rhetoric has always been heated. Eighteenth century political rhetoric may not sound heated when viewed through our twenty-first century lens (“Sir! You are a scoundrel! I challenge you to a duel forthwith!”), but politics has always sparked passionate—albeit not always wise or productive—debate and discourse. The difference between then and now is the ability and ease with which people are able to disseminate and access political commentary; the traditional media gatekeepers are no longer as important as they once were. This is good (more participation in democracy!) and bad (totally unhinged rants, for instance, about Obama’s place of birth assume legitimacy).
Where will the line be drawn? I generally trust that the government will act not only in good faith, but in the best interests of democracy. But I cannot believe that this statute, if passed, will not be used to trample on some disfavored individuals’ and groups’ free speech rights. Is creating a map with crosshairs—err, sorry, “surveyor’s symbols” —the best way to make a political point? No. Does it add anything valuable to political discourse? No. Use your grown-up words, people. But should it be a crime? No. It’s not inciting anyone to violence, and if someone sees those symbols and thinks, “Hey! I should attack a lawmaker,” the legal fault lies with that individual, not the creator of the map. But violent words and conduct do contribute to the overall political atmosphere, and I think it is well within everyone’s right to point that out. Suggesting that individuals not create maps insinuating that the best thing to do would be to “take out” politicians isn’t trampling on their free speech rights, it’s exercising yours. Contrary to a suggestion made in a Facebook argument I recently took part in (I know, I know – Internet arguments . . . eyeroll), debating the merits of a particular manner of communicating a message does not mean one wishes to forcibly silence the other. The marketplace of ideas only works when we can say “Hey, Sarah Palin, your map? Really inappropriate. The suggestion that people don’t retreat, they reload? Possibly really harmful,” without the criticized party freaking out and accusing others of trampling on their free speech. Say whatever you like. But don’t expect others not to be critical: You’re a proponent of free speech, aren’t you?