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Monday, January 10, 2011

Curbing Free Speech Not the Answer to Political Violence

The knee-jerk reaction, primarily on the left side of the political spectrum, to the tragic shootings in Arizona over the weekend was predictable. It is also wrong-headed.

Curbing free speech, whether from the left or the right will not stop deranged people such as 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, the man now in police custody for killing six people and wounding Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 14 others in Tucson.

Nevertheless, there are those who are convinced that muzzling talk radio hosts, television commentators and those who write angry letters to the editor, is the answer.

The fact is when you read between the lines of the outrage concerning political discourse what you find is this: as long as the discourse is in agreement with your beliefs, your political agenda and your view of the world, then it is OK.

But if it is in opposition to what you believe, then by all means, it must be curbed.

That is not the way the First Amendment works.

Even the American Civil Liberties Union, which is about as left-wing as you can get in this country, insists there is no such thing as "hate speech." There is, says the ACLU, only "free speech."

Here is what the ACLU says about what it calls "hateful speech:"

"The ACLU has often been at the center of controversy for defending the free speech rights of groups that spew hate, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis. But if only popular ideas were protected, we wouldn't need a First Amendment. History teaches that the first target of government repression is never the last. If we do not come to the defense of the free speech rights of the most unpopular among us, even if their views are antithetical to the very freedom the First Amendment stands for, then no one's liberty will be secure. In that sense, all First Amendment rights are "indivisible."

"Censoring so-called hate speech also runs counter to the long-term interests of the most frequent victims of hate: racial, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities. We should not give the government the power to decide which opinions are hateful, for history has taught us that government is more apt to use this power to prosecute minorities than to protect them. As one federal judge has put it, tolerating hateful speech is "the best protection we have against any Nazi-type regime in this country."

Yet, in the wake of the Arizona shootings, it is the left that is on the warpath, demanding that something be done to curb the very freedom of expression the ACLU works to protect.

Rep. Robert Brady, (D-Pa.), announced this weekend that he planned to introduce legislation that would make it a federal crime for someone to use language or imagery that might be construed as threatening violence against members of Congress or federal officials.

"The rhetoric is just ramped up so negatively, so high that we have got to shut this down," Brady said in an interview on CNN, adding: "This is not a wake-up call; this is major alarms going off."

Other lawmakers also lashed out at an overheated political climate, arguing, like Brady, that it has helped create an environment ripe for the shooting.

"We're living in a time that all of us should begin to take stock of how our words affect people," Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said on "Fox News Sunday", "especially those who aren't very stable."

What those two politicians are suggesting is a very slippery slope. Once you give the government the power to police what you can say, where you can say it and how you say it, you have given away your greatest freedom. Think about Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan of the 1930s and 1940s. Both of those nations created agencies that did nothing more than watch and listen to what people said--little more than thought police.

The idea that what Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or Bill O"Reilly say on their radio and TV shows somehow creates a "climate of hate" in America is ludicrous.

The same goes for those on the other side of the political spectrum such as Moveon.Org, Media Matters, etc. What they say is just as anathema to conservatives as what Beck or Limbaugh say about liberals. Both are part of the political discourse and that is a healthy thing.

To blame former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin or the Tea Party for what happened last weekend because both targeted districts and states where Democrats needed to be defeated by Republicans in the recent election is an absurd leap from the precipice of rational thought.

By the same token to assume that what talk show hosts say or what is on Sarah Palin's website could have been responsible for Loughner's action is to stretch credibility to the breaking point.

Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, also took issue with the notion that Loughner's actions had anything to do with the political climate that has recently been shaped in no small part by vocal members of groups like hers.

"I don't see how expressing your anger and frustration with government in a peaceful manner can be blamed for lone actions of one mentally disturbed person," Martin told ABC News. "Expressing your frustration and asking your elected officials to represent you the way you want to be represented is a far cry from violence."

The best remedy for hate speech is more free speech. By allowing discourse to move ahead it keeps things in the open. To stop talk show hosts from talking or opposing political views from being expressed we are only insuring that the discourse goes underground where, devoid of the light of day, it will grow into a dangerous malignancy.

That is not what the constitutional framers had in mind when they adopted the First Amendment in 1791.

That critical Constitutional amendment is as brilliant in its brevity as it is in its scope:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Congress should heed those words and not attempt to re-construe their meaning.
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