Right or wrong? Wise or foolish? Moral or immoral? Legal or illegal? How do we know? How do we decide as a society?
Is there a sane person in the world who doesn’t agree that the tragic mass murder and carnage that happened in Tucson, Ariz., on Saturday is wrong, bad and illegal? Probably not.
How about politicians and media personalities including phrases like “lock and load” and “Second Amendment remedies” in their talk about possible public responses to anger at government? Is this wise or foolish? How about dangerous?
Political rhetoric is generally considered legal as protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States – freedom of speech. However – there is often a “however” – is there a time when it’s foolish, wrong and dangerous to the point of being judged illegal? Is there a time when public speech can be ruled a “clear and present danger” in certain circumstances such as falsely shouting “fire” in a theater?
A ‘clear and present danger’
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote a unanimous Supreme Court decision in 1919 that says yes, it can be illegal.
“The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. […] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”
Thanks to Wikipedia for this quick background. Legal discussion is substantially more extensive.
Our hearts go out with compassion to the victims of this tragedy and their loved ones. This is a universal human response that defines us as people living in a civilized society.
Not an option
But what else do we have a responsibility to do as citizens of a democracy? Nothing is not an option.
This tragic incident is a symptom of a looming crisis. As the long-term effects of widespread unemployment and poverty become more visible in society, and as policymakers in Washington continue to ignore this suffering, it’s reasonable to expect more violent behavior from those who feel alienated and abandoned.
We need to intentionally and tenaciously develop a moral public response to this tearing apart of the social fabric. Building consensus that inflammatory rhetoric is wrong is a start.
Phyllis Stenerson, of Minneapolis, focuses on values in politics and public policy through research, writing and activism at ProgressiveValues.org.