Arizona shooting pundits are wrong: Heated political speech isn’t the problem – it’s the solution

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 prevent violence, because it allows people to voice their strongly held views in hopes of persuading others.

“He did not watch TV. He disliked the news. He didn’t listen to political radio. He didn’t take sides. He wasn’t on the left. He wasn’t on the right.”

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.

Arizona shooting suspect Jared Loughner: 5 of his strange ideas

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.

The primary purpose of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and a free press is to protect what the courts have since referred to as “political speech.” The founders well understood that those who seek unchecked and unaccountable power will make every effort to control and limit political speech. Even the great patriot John Adams tried to criminalize certain kinds of political speech once he became president and got tired of being criticized.

Political speech is protected by the Constitution precisely so that it is not subject to the political whims of a particular majority, or subject to the emotions of the latest news cycle. Perhaps the worst time to even consider tinkering with bedrock principles is when emotions are inflamed by a news event.

That politicians and pundits were blaming speech for the tragic shooting in Arizona even before knowing the name of the shooter – and before having any conceivable idea what might have motivated this unknown man’s behavior – should make clear that they have an agenda that this event simply gives them a convenient excuse to promote.

Knowing what we know of the shooter today, there is not the slightest evidence that a “heated political climate” had anything to do with his rampage. But even if this madman was motivated by hot political talk, it shouldn’t matter to anyone who loves liberty. Loose cannons cannot be allowed to deprive the rest of us of the freedom to speak out, to challenge our government, and to write and speak forcefully about issues of the day.

Congress shall make 'no law'

There is a reason the First Amendment makes clear that Congress shall make “no law” abridging freedom of speech. Every effort to legislate speech erodes our liberty and weakens our capacity for self-government.

Political speech will not and should not always be mild and polite. In a free society, speech is the means by which we petition our government, persuade others our cause is just, and make our voices heard. It is the means by which we rid ourselves of those in power and replace them with others more to our liking. The ballot box requires the soap box if it is to have any meaning.

ANOTHER VIEW: Arizona's Sheriff Dupnik and the 'vitriol' debate: Do words matter that much?

I may not like it or think it presidential when Barack Obama explained in 2008 how he would counter Republican attacks: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we’ll bring a gun.” And others may resent 2010 Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle for saying that people would be considering “Second-Amendment remedies” if Congress “keeps going the way it is.” Those kinds of words undoubtedly add to a heated political climate. But it doesn’t matter. Both politicians get to say them. And anyone who tries to silence them or others who speak in such colorful and or even highly charged language is an enemy of freedom.

As 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill explained, “bad speech” should be met with more speech, not more speech regulations.

Nobody in the arena of political speech – from either the right or the left – bears any responsibility for the shooting in Arizona .

The First Amendment is not to blame and is not a problem needing to be solved. Leave it alone.

Blair Lindsay, a former criminal prosecutor, is a high school teacher and coach.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.