In the wake of the Arizona shooting, some lawmakers want to curb political speech. But raucous debate is a hallmark of a healthy democracy. Indeed, it’s a safety valve that helps preventviolence, because it allows people to voice their strongly held views in hopes of persuading others.
That’s how a friend described Arizona shooting suspect Jared Loughner. The more we learn about this disturbed young man, the clearer it becomes that so-called vitriolic political speech had nothing to do with Saturday’s tragedy.
Yet that hasn’t stopped critics from holding conservative pundits responsible. And now, some members of Congress are going after the “root” problem: the First Amendment.
Rep. Robert Brady (D) of Pennsylvania wants to make it a federal crime to use symbols or language that could be seen as threatening or promoting harm against a federal official or member of Congress. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D) of New York is urging the Federal Communications Commission to crack down on broadcasts that some consider inflammatory. And Rep. James Clyburn (D) of South Carolina says we need new standards to guarantee balanced media coverage and that we should “rethink the parameters of free speech.”
These are dangerous ideas.
Speech is a safety valve
To suggest that words – angry or otherwise – need to be controlled and curtailed shows a remarkable ignorance of the history of tyranny and the history of freedom. Indeed, critics of “angry rhetoric” have it backward: Charged political speech in America isn’t the problem – it’s the solution. Raucous political discussion and debate is a hallmark of a functioning and healthy democracy. It is a safety valve that helps prevent violence, because it allows people to voice their strongly held views in the hopes of persuading others and effecting change.
Highly charged political speech and debate has been a vital part of the American experiment since its inception. And those in power have always tried to suppress it. That’s what people in power do.
America’s founding document, The Declaration of Independence, is nothing if not a highly charged and vitriolic piece of political speech. If referring to the king as a “tyrant” and guilty of “usurpations” against liberty isn’t untempered, then nothing is. Patrick Henry didn’t exactly speak like a choir boy, either.
American political history is full of examples of inflammatory political speech. It is also full of examples of efforts by those in power to limit the ability of people to speak out.