EDITORIAL: Free-speech scapegoat

Arizona rampage was not caused by political discourse

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Many politicians can be counted on to to do the wrong thing in response to tragedy. The weekend’s Arizona shooting was no exception. For Exhibit A, consider Rep. Robert A. Brady, Pennsylvania Democrat, who wants to outlaw any language or symbols that could be perceived to threaten violence against congressmen or other federal officials.

In numerous television interviews, Mr. Brady made clear his proposed bill would ban such images as those in which a bull’s-eye or other target is placed over the photo of a member of Congress or a congressional district. Set aside the fact that martial, hunting and pugilistic imagery - even the word “campaign” itself, which derives directly from military affairs - always has been part of American political debate. Then ask: If a mere image, or spoken language using the same sorts of imagery or analogies, can be treated as a criminal offense, what does that mean for free-speech rights protected by the First Amendment, which was read aloud on the House floor just last week?

The subjectivity involved in determining whether ideas are offensive enough to merit prosecution wades into a dangerous gray area. Americans don’t want or trust bureaucrats to decide if speech never intended as a threat can nevertheless be perceived to be a threat.

It’s already illegal to make threats against federal officials. Various sections of Title 18 of the United States Code protect “any officer or employee of the United States or of any agency in any branch of the United States Government (including any member of the uniformed services) while such officer or employee is engaged in or on account of the performance of official duties.” This sort of law is allowable because a direct, intentional threat is treated not as speech but as an action. On the other hand, the use of fighting words by analogy or metaphor, in context, is part and parcel of the English tongue.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat, used Saturday’s shooting as an excuse to promote the so-called Fairness Doctrine, the main attribute of which is to use government to force equal time for liberal views on talk radio, where there’s not much demand for leftism. It’s a wildly overreactive assault on our liberty to manipulate a tragedy to control speech.

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