Is the First Amendment Routinely Violated?
Freedom of Speech
I imagine if you ask 100 people on the streets of just about Anytown, USA what is the Bill of Rights about 1/2 wouldn’t know. I’m quite sure they wouldn’t know how many amendments exist (27 to be clear). Most probably don’t know the exact wording of the First Amendment and what it does. Well, here it is folks: The First Amendment in all its glory.
Freedom of Religion, Speech, and the Press
This Amendment has been used to determine whether certain kinds of speech go too far and are not protected. For many years I thought it was illegal to "shout fire in a crowded theater." However, this is an outdated legal standard. At one point, the law criminalized such speech, which created a "clear and present danger." But since 1969, for speech to break the law, it can’t merely lead others to dangerous situations. It must directly encourage others to commit specific criminal actions of their own. The intent must be to incite people to violence with the speech and be a true threat – one that has immediacy and some sort of actual intent. Here’s an example. If the speech is incitement to cause harm, or creates a danger (i.e., “there is a bomb on the plane”) or articulates a credible threat, it’s not protected speech.
So, this brings me to the main issue addressed in this newsletter, which is has President Trump and/or politicians such as Maxine Waters violated the First Amendment with statements made that incite supporters to cause immediate harm to others or incite violence?
Trump and the First Amendment
Critics might say that President Trump routinely violates the First Amendment through speech designed to stoke the flames of fire in the hearts of his supporters and even move them to violent acts. For example, at a campaign stop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in February 2016, Trump said in reference to the possibility that someone might throw tomatoes at him: “So if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, Knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. Just knock the hell…I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise.” A video apparently showed that Trump was not smiling or chuckling as if it was intended as a joke. There are other examples including references to throw out disrupters at campaign events (“Get him the hell out of here, will you, please”).
More recently, media groups have complained that Trump uses the power of his office to take punitive action against some reporters because of what they say or ask in news conferences. Trump has threatened to revoke press passes from other White House correspondents. Just last week the White House said that it’s suspending the press pass of CNN’s Jim Acosta “until further notice” for asking multiple questions at a news conference, failing to relinquish the stage, so to speak, and rudeness.
Trump’s words do encourage disrespectful behavior towards others and incivility, which may lead to violent behavior.
There have been an increasing number of encounters between mostly Republican lawmakers and protesters that give me pause about whether the actions of some are designed to violate the rights of the politicians. We see protesters in the face of Republicans at restaurants and other venues; encouraging supporters to disrupt their lives. And, these acts have occurred while the politicians were out with their family – a bridge too far for my tastes.
Maxine Waters (D-CA) called for supporters to confront members of Trump’s administration on June 25, 2018, saying: “You see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, and at a gas station you get out and create a crowd and you push back at them.” Regardless of your political persuasion, this kind of speech goes too far – it is intended to incite others to become violent in encounters with Cabinet members.
As I complete this blog I am saddened about what has become of our country. Yes, it’s still the best on earth but that is a relative statement. Every week we learn of shootings in a synagogue, night club, school and in the workplace. To say we are a violent nation is an understatement. It’s bad and it’s getting worse. Should we blame it on the tone of political discourse today; on distasteful behavior and words -- absolutely. As we say in business, ethics is about setting an ethical tone at the top and having it filter down throughout the organization. The opposite of ethics is occurring today. It’s an uncivil tone that provokes over-the-top reaction to what someone says on the other side of the issue.
I honestly worry whether the complexion of our country has changed to the extent that we’ll never be the same – at least in my lifetime. Are we still the beacon of hope for so many or are we attractive to so many (i.e., immigrants) because things are incredible worse in their own country?
Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 13, 2018. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and Like his page. And, thanks for reading!!!