Jan 11, 2011
By Matt Bogard
There has been a lot of talk this week related to ‘vitriolic’ political speech and its so-called impact on violent behavior. As a result, some have called for us to tone down the rhetoric as a nation, and others have even alluded to the need for laws criminalizing ‘vitriolic’ speech.
Political speech by its very nature is controversial and that is a primary reason why it should be protected, and is protected, by the First Amendment. In order to carry out many of the things that government does (such as the bailouts and takeover of the financial industry, the social planning of money and interest by the Federal Reserve, proposed GIPSA rules, the unscientific review of atrazine, potential dust regulation etc.), it has to claim powers not granted by the Constitution. With wild interpretations of the commerce clause and the meaning of ‘general welfare’, unelected supreme court justices have provided the cover to do so. This represents a transfer of power away from the people to bureaucrats, judges, and politicians, and is what economist Thomas Sowell has referred to as ‘the quiet repeal of the American Revolution.’ As a result, there is no wonder people have been engaging in heated debate, and no wonder we have the Tea Party. When people have become so disenfranchised, voicing dissenting opinions becomes an important function of democracy.
‘Vitriol’ is largely a matter of subjective judgment. If we calibrate our political speech, lest some psychologically unstable person intercepts it, or some judge or prosecutor makes the case that it is a crime based on their subjective opinion that it is ‘vitriolic,’ can you imagine the silencing effect that would have on free speech in this country? It is one thing to criminalize speech that specifically and directly calls for acts of violence, but to criminalize speech based on a subjective notion of ‘vitriol’ based on a specious connection with violent behavior is entertaining tyranny.
In terms of agvocacy, how often have we seen heated debates on the Facebook pages of corporations that have aligned themselves with anti-agricultural interests? How many times have farmers and agvocates responded to editorials condemning agriculture? If ‘vitriolic’ speech becomes questionable under the law, think what incentives a corporate lawyer would have to subjectively make the case that agvocates are creating a venomous environment when they use social media to respond to some policy? The same goes for anti-agricultural activist groups that may have deeper pockets than the average agvocate.
This is not that far fetched. From the New York Times 'Bloodshed Puts New Focus on Vitriol in Politics' web sites and talk radio are cited as media promoting a dangerous political climate.
"And there has been broader anger and suspicion rising about the government, its finances and its goals, with the discourse partially fueled by talk shows and Web sites"
Tweets and Facebook posts by Sarah Palin have also been cited as an example of the 'vitriol' inciting violence ( see 'The Lock and Load Rhetoric of American Politics Isn't Just a Metaphor' from the Huffington Post and its reference to 'Sarah Palin Steps Up the Rhetoric Against Her Detractors' from Syracuse.com)
From Lohud.com 'Curbing Online Vitriol Would Be A Start', there is a caution about protecting free speech, but a hint that the media should at least use subjective judgement to censor speech. In any case, blogs are cited as breeding grounds for vitriol:
"In our own small corner of the world, we repeatedly see vitriolic, malicious blog entries and posts on websites maintained by this and other local newspapers....But the media need to step up to their responsibility to distinguish between speech that should be protected and the virtual equivalent of incitement to riot and violence."
What exactly is 'the equivalent of incitement to riot and violence'? It could be one thing if organizations are voluntarily doing the censoring, but this kind of language could easily find its way into the courtroom.
While most of these examples refer to mainstream politicians and their campaign rhetoric, and a lot of the discussion has called for voluntary considerations, it hasn't been that long since we have heard discussions about bringing back the fairness doctrine, or the concept of 'net neutrality.' Criminalizing this kind of behavior can easily set a precedent for expanded restrictions on other types of political speech given a clever lawyer and an activist judge. Restricting media and speech based on subjective preferences is as good as repealing the First Amendment. Perhaps we should tone down the rhetoric, but lets make it a matter of taste and not a matter of law. We have the First Amendment for a reason, and we should keep it.