Reprinted from The State, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011
The cost of free speech
The echo ringing loudest in the wake of the Tucson tragedy
is not of the gunshots that killed six and severely wounded
a congresswoman, among others, but of the sharp and piercing
words that ricochet around us. Was the rhetoric the real trigger
for the Arizona shooter's action? Should we muzzle political
speech in a democratic society? Is civility the antidote for
The assault on the most innocuous of political gatherings
— Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' "Congress on Your Corner
launched a call for restraint on the part of politicians, partisans
and the press. The presumption, if not yet the evidence, suggests
that the inflammatory level of discourse and its pervasiveness
in the 24/7 news cycle, on the web and in social media can
fuel such an explosion of violence.
"Hate speech and other inciteful speech," FBI director Robert Mueller
said in Tucson, create a challenge for law enforcement's ability to deal with
the solitary offender.
Pima County sheriff Clarence Dupnik was less constrained.
Dupnik said "the rhetoric about hatred, about mistrust of government" is
used to "try to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24
hours a day, seven days a week." That, says Dupnik, "has
impact on people especially who are unbalanced personalities
to begin with."
Jared Loughner. Timothy McVeigh. James Earl Ray. Lee Harvey
But what really set them off? And is there anything we might
do about it? Law enforcement has its legitimate concerns. Mine
focus on the media and the political arena.
"The Rhetoric Made Me Do It!" says the bold headline on former CNN
defense correspondent Jamie McIntyre's blog "Line of Departure." McIntyre
took on what he describes as a national conversation on "rhetoric rage."
It's an important conversation to have. Howard Kurtz of The
Daily Beast and CNN's Reliable Sources made it the focus of
his Sunday show, then lamented on his blog that he was "disappointed
in some of the vitriol" his interview guests continued
to spew. The bookers for the TV talk shows seek guests who
can be provocatively thoughtful. But if you can't do both,
provocative tends to trump thoughtful. Inciteful has more audience
magnetism than insightful. Twitter is rife with twits.
Much of the discussion following the shooting of Congresswoman
Giffords has centered on Sarah Palin's campaign on behalf of
conservative Tea Party Republicans. Last March, Palin's Facebook
page highlighted 20 congressional districts Republicans might
pick up. Giffords' was one.
A map on the Facebook page showed targets on each of the
districts. Giffords voiced concern about being in the "crosshairs." A
Palin aide, in a radio interview after the shooting, suggested
the campaign "never ever, ever intended it to be gun sights," but
it could have been "surveyor's symbols."
Let's not hang this anguishing attack in Tucson on Palin
or any politician or, for that matter, any nattering media
person. None placed the gun in Loughner's hand. And none can
judge how the thought came to his head, certainly not through
his rambling about government "mind control...by controlling
Language matters in democratic society. Totalitarians can
get away with outrageous doublespeak. In the media, we often
describe campaigns as battles, candidates as combatants, speeches
as salvoes, at least when we're not using sporting analogies
which are equally combative. Politicians do much the same.
Political free speech is given extraordinary deference by the
"That may be free speech, but it's not without consequences," says
Sheriff Dupnik. He is correct. The sheriff also drew a bead on (see how easy
it is) Arizona's permissiveness toward carrying concealed weapons.
McIntyre's blog suggests a "national conversation about
guns and so-called 'second amendment solutions' to first amendment
problems." That's a conversation for another time, and
the blogs and tweets will light up over it.
The U.S. Constitution, even as it was read at the opening
of the current congressional session, was not written as a
pick-what-you-like menu. With the First Amendment, you get
the second and 25 others. Some have since been repealed, but
consider it a totality, for even the record of repeal speaks
to the nature and objectives of American society.
The students in our campus chapter of the Society of Professional
Journalists sell a t-shirt that says, "Talk is cheap.
Free speech isn't." A score of citizens paid an incalculable
price for the preservation of free speech on the streets of