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Is ‘lock and load’ political rhetoric shouting ‘fire in a theater’?

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

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 01/11/2011 - 09:12 am.

    Excellent and thoughtful perspective.

    Sadly, those who need most to restrain their own invective will remain unlikely (and likely psychologically unable) to do so even if that invective brings violence to their own doorsteps, into their own homes, and into their own media studios.

    If that happens, they will loudly decry that such a thing could happen, complaining that “crazy people” are not kept under proper control, and continuing to absolve themselves of all blame.

    It is a difficult thing to do, but those who would use national media to advocate violence themselves, or insight violence in others vulnerable to their invective, need to be restrained by external forces.

    In fact they seem to express fearful concerns that such a thing could happen even as they continuously ramp up their invective to the point where they seem to be trying to give others no choice but to restrain them, or at least force them to alter their language and ratchet down their invective.

    I can’t help but wonder how it is that those who now own the national media have taken individuals who, if they were living in our own neighborhoods, we’d easily identify as those most likely to barricade themselves in their houses and have “standoffs” with local law enforcement, and put them in national TV and radio studios.

    I suppose they make good entertainment for some people, but the results are likely to be far more disastrous than when one or another of those types of persons arms themselves and barricades themselves in their own homes in order to take on the “government” in our own neighborhoods and backyards.

  2. Submitted by myles spicer on 01/11/2011 - 10:09 am.

    Few, if anyone, is suggestion muzzling free speech. As a long time member of the ACLU, I have seen the most egregious of talk defended. The big change in they dynamics of rhetoric in America came in 1987 when the Fairness Doctrine in the media was abandoned. Today, 9 out of 10 talk show hosts in the media are conservatives; many extreme to the right, and virtually all unfettered in their commentaries. That is where most of the vitriol emanates from, and where little can be done to restrain it. But having said that, clearly our country is much the worse for this situation — and it is extended and exacerbated by the freewheeling nature of the internet.

    Sadly, we may see more of Gifford’s as victims unless we persuade the voices of anger to dial back. One can only hope!

  3. Submitted by Joe Musich on 01/11/2011 - 02:39 pm.

    Nice over all picture of the recent history of The Fairness Doctrine as related to FCCicensing and more. Put it up on the smartboard this AM for class.

    Another gift from the great deregulator. Already the issue is being minimized.

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