Freedom of (Angry) Expression

After the terrible shootings in Arizona, some folks rushed to use the spilled blood as fuel in their political machines. Some hurried to blame the right, especially Sarah Palin and her infamous map of “surveyor symbols.” Others leaped to place the blame on the left.

Among the more reasonable folks and experts the consensus arose that the shooter was motivated by neither the right nor the left. Rather, he seemed to have made his choice under the influence of his own troubled mental states. As such, the blame seems to rest (as it should) primarily on the person who pulled the trigger. This incident did, of course, raise legitimate concerns about various relevant issues such as whether or not more laws should be created in the hopes of preventing another incident like this one.

Some people do, of course, want to pass laws against  speech containing violent rhetoric and images that are suggestive of violence-at least when these are directed at politicians.  The hope is, naturally enough,  that such laws will help prevent future incidents.

Those who traffic in angry rhetoric were quick to angrily denounce such proposals as violating their right to free expression. While I am not in agreement with the angry rhetoric, I do agree that such laws would tend to violate that right. I also contend that such new laws are neither needed nor desirable.

One reason to not add new laws is the obvious fact that actual threats of violence are already against the law. As such, there does not seem to be a compelling need to add new laws to make illegal what is already illegal.

However, some of the suggestions involve laws that go beyond outlawing actual threats. The idea seems to be that new laws should cover vaguely threatening rhetoric and suggestive images.

While this might have some appeal, to expand the laws to restrict expression that might merely be seen as vaguely threatening or suggestive of violence (like cross hairs on a map) would seem to infringe too far into the freedom of expression without adequate justification. After all, restricting the freedom of expression requires justifying that restriction-typically on the basis of harm or potential harm. Something that merely seems threatening or suggestive does not seem to be harmful enough to warrant such a restriction.

These two points could be combined into something of a dilemma: if an act of expression is an actual threat, then it is already covered by existing laws and hence no new law is needed. If an act of expression cannot be classified as an actual threat, then it would seem to be protected by the freedom of expression and hence no new law is needed. Thus, there would seem to be no need for new laws in this area.

There is also the practical concern that laws vague enough to cover what is vaguely threatening or suggestive of violence could easily be misused by politicians against their opponents and critics. This would, as some have said, have a chilling effect on free speech.

In light of these reasons, it would seem that no new restrictions on expression should be made into laws. This, oddly enough, puts me in agreement with folks who want to continue to use angry and violent political rhetoric. However, I do disagree with them in a key way.

While I do agree that people should be free to spew hateful rhetoric that does not cross over into actual threats and incitements to violence, I also believe that people should tone down the violent rhetoric and the anger. At the very least, people should consider whether their anger is proportional to reality. Political discussion and the general good are not well served by vitriol. They are not aided by disproportionate anger. They are not enhanced by rage. While we do have disagreements, we should remember that we are not blood enemies and that we can discuss our differences in a rational way, free of allusions to violence. Before sputtering in rage, we should think of those people lying dead on the tar and temper our words. After all, their blood shows us the true fruits of hatred and rage.

My point is, of course, that there is an important distinction between what people should be allowed to express and what they should choose to express. To use an analogy, there should be no law that forbids spouses from referring to each other as “whore”, “sh@thead” and so on. However, spouses really should not use such language with each other. Likewise for the angry rhetoric-people have the right to use it, but they should really consider not doing so.

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