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When Free Speech Isn’t Free

Political rhetoric and the vitriol associated with much of it has been in the news a lot lately. Many people claim that words don’t hurt people. I completely disagree. Such a statement is tantamount to the gun lover slogan, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” While it’s true that guns (and words) are not the ones that actually make the decision to harm someone, their effect CAN be just as devastating as the human who actually pulls the trigger.

Last year I led an effort to have six products from Zazzle pulled because they advocated for the death of President Obama. The vendor in question had 568 products for sale at the time, every one of which was anti-Obama. While I found many of those items personally offensive, I only objected to the six that crossed the line from political commentary into fostering hate and potential violence.

Let me be absolutely 100% clear that I support free speech. If this situation was simply a matter of disliking certain comments, products, or media, this debate would not even be taking place. But when that speech, product, or media creates a climate of hostility and potential danger to the president of the United States, I believe it is all of our responsibility to question it, call upon it, and stop it from progressing. And there is definitely a precedent for that.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1919 (Schenck vs USA, 249 U.S. 47) that the First Amendment does not protect speech that encourages “insubordination” against the government when to do so creates or has the potential of creating a “clear and present danger”.

The court’s summary of that case can be found here. Here is a portion of their decision:

The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree. When a nation is at war many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight and that no Court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right.

In October, the Boston Globe reported that threats against President Obama have increased by 400% since he took office and that the Secret Service is understaffed and underfunded to handle all of them. This is further substantiated by a report from the Congressional Research Service in March 2009. And in the new book entitled The President’s Secret Service, investigative journalist Ronald Keesler takes his readers through a behind the scenes look with secret service agents in the line of fire and the presidents they protect and methodically documents the increase in threats against President Obama – as well as the rise in the number of hate groups nationwide. The threats against President Obama are very real and there are people out there who don’t need much of a nudge to take action against him.

The AFL/CIO, Anti-Defamation League, and other groups have issued opinions that “jokes” about the death and/or assassination of Obama can be construed as influencing, inciting, encouraging, or suggesting that such an act should be carried out. The Secret Service agrees.

In today’s world of escalating terrorism and hate groups, there is zero tolerance policy for any action that can be construed as contributing to a “clear and present danger” against the president, whether that action be an obvious, articulated threat or one that is more covert and/or subliminal. Threats are taken seriously, no matter how vague.

Just like the law prohibiting us from making jokes on airplane about terrorist activities, the First Amendment has limitations. Some may argue that being prohibited from making jokes about blowing up a plane goes too far. It’s just a joke, right? Maybe. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still against the law. As is any product, speech, or action that infers violence against the president.

At any other time and with any other president, we might be able to shrug off these kinds of things as some kind of tasteless joke. But this is not another time or another president. And the threats against him are real, palpable, and urgent.

If the jokes were aimed at your loved one, who happened to be the most vulnerable of any president in U.S. history, would it still be funny?

I want to stress that this is not a political party issue. This is an issue about the safety of the person who represents every citizen of the United States. Even if meant to be a joke, the law doesn’t find anything funny about advocating for the president’s death. Whether we voted for Obama or not, whether we like him or not, whether we agree with him or not, is completely irrelevant and has nothing to do with this matter.

Like it or not, there are limits to what the First Amendment guarantees, and those limits have been tried and tested in court. There are also laws against threatening or inferring a threat against the President and his administration. Censorship and respecting the law are not the same things.

I will fight for your right to call Obama an idiot. I will fight against you if you say he should be taken out because he is an idiot. That goes for any political ideal, politician, or John Q citizen, too. Save your second amendment remedies for the shooting range – not for public discourse.

Oh, and you betcha, that includes pictures of anyone framed within the scope of crosshairs, too.

About Marla Turner:
It's not about the me. It's about the we.


6 Responses to “When Free Speech Isn’t Free”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with you. Somewhere along the way “freedom of speech” has been twisted and morphed into “I can ^%$#&*^ say any ^&*$@#$ thing I want about (killing, kicking, beating, raping, bludgeoning …insert any other violent/assaultive verb here) !@#$%^& anybody I (*&^%$# want to! It’s my right as an American!” Somehow, I don’t feel that this is what the founders of America meant when they wrote the first amendment. I believe that there IS a limit. I believe that certain language is unwarranted and unacceptable. However, I feel that upholding that limit should be a moral imperative that comes from WITHIN the spirit of what it means to be American. The pride, gratitude, and respect for what freedom of speech really means is a feeling of the heart the soul of humanity…of what we are lucky to have as a right in America. Shame on the extremists for pushing the limit in the name of headlines or attention. Shame on anyone who will so blatantly abuse and take for granted a right offered to each and every American citizen, as we live in a world where the majority of the humans on it are not blessed with such a right. Thank you, Marla, for bringing to the forefront a serious issue. American citizens need to recognize that words can be weapons and just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you should.

    Posted by Cyndy | February 4, 2011, 4:12 pm
  2. It is a sad time in our evolution as a nation, as humans, that we have the need to ask adults to refrain from violent rhetoric. It is not cute, or witty, or cool to single anyone out as the target of any form of violence. Most of us are better than that and do not need to resort to such tactics to get our points across. Those with limited foresight and diminished conflict negotiation skills often resort more primal methods of settling a score. It is unfortunate that some of those have a national microphone with which they can spread propaganda, promote irrational fear and foment violence. Educated, responsible, self-aware and humble people do not act like these lost souls lashing out at anyone who disagrees with them. I pity them, I loathe them but I will never threaten them. If we don’t denounce this behavior, it will continue and more will be shot in grocery store parking lots, at town halls, in churches and wherever the perceived enemy is found. May it not be you…

    Posted by ZiPo | February 4, 2011, 3:34 pm
  3. Speech doesn’t need to be limited anymore than it already is. Slippery-slope…

    Posted by Eric Leach | February 4, 2011, 3:13 pm

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