In the past few weeks, leading Democrats in Congress have called Tea Party members terrorists, said they should go to hell and accused them of wanting to lynch black people. Last weekend at an event attended by President Obama, the head of the Teamsters Union, Jimmy Hoffa Jr., attacked the Tea Party, screaming, “President Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march. Let’s take these sons of bitches [Tea Party members] out and give America back to an America where we belong.” (Note: The president was not on the platform when Mr. Hoffa spoke.)
So far, neither the president nor any prominent Democrat has condemned such remarks - even though the phrase “take out” is commonly used to describe an act of criminal homicide. Thus, Mr. Hoffa’s statement might rise to the level of incitement to violence.
Of course, the First Amendment protects political speech - even obnoxious and abusive language. But the Supreme Court has always recognized that some words are not protected. Thus, in Virginia v. Black (2003), the Supreme Court found that while “The First Amendment affords protection to symbolic or expressive conduct as well as to actual speech … the protections afforded by the First Amendment, however, are not absolute, and we have long recognized that the government may regulate certain categories of expression consistent with the Constitution.” Thus, for example, a state may punish those words that “by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace,” the court said in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969). And the First Amendment also permits a state to ban a “true threat.” Such speech encompasses those statements in which the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals. (Political hyperbole is not a “true threat.”) The speaker need not actually intend to carry out the threat. Rather, the court said, a prohibition on true threats “protect* individuals from the fear of violence” and “from the disruption that fear engenders,” in addition to protecting people “from the possibility that the threatened violence will occur.”
Tea Party members could reasonably feel fear of violence from union activists after Mr. Hoffa’s call to “take out” Tea Party members. Given the history of violence associated with unions in general and the Teamsters in particular. (Mr. Hoffa’s father, also president of Teamsters, is widely believed to have been murdered by fellow Teamsters.) Of course, both the Michigan attorney general and the U.S. attorney general would need to assess the specific statutes to see whether Mr. Hoffa’s words are criminally proscribed. (Yes, I know it is unlikely that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. would follow this suggestion - more’s the pity.)
Whether Mr. Hoffa’s words are criminal or not, the emerging tone of the Democratic Party regarding the Tea Party is ominous with the use of words like “terrorist,” “lynching,” “go to hell,” “take them out.” It is the language of murderous violence, and it is targeted at a specific group of people. Most disturbing is the failure of Democratic Party leaders to condemn such language, including the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. On national television, she specifically and repeatedly evaded any comment on Mr. Hoffa’s statement. No president or other party leader can be held responsible for the utterances of all of his political colleagues, nor can he be expected to respond to every intemperate word. But when the words are by other party leaders themselves and are nationally reported, a moral obligation arises to condemn such language.
One would have to be stubbornly blind and deaf to the current mood not to sense that the nation is moving toward one of the most combustible moments in our political history. We’ve had three years of economic hard times, deep and perhaps unprecedented national pessimism regarding both the present and the future, angry polarization of political attitudes - and elements of senior leadership of the Democratic Party that, by its silence, might seem to be assenting to such expressions. All of this comes as we enter an always emotional national election campaign.
It is a commonplace to observe that we rarely appreciate the value of what we have until we lose it. And despite all our current difficulties, America has been - and remains - blessed with a nonviolent political and electoral process. We should cling to that tradition with both hands because Americans are generally a rough and ready people. That we have kept violence largely out of our political process can thus almost be seen as providential. We should not, however, rely on providence in that regard. Keeping our politics peaceful is up to each of us - and I have never seen an upcoming political season more in need of our attention to that civic duty.
Tony Blankley is the author of “American Grit: What It Will Take to Survive and Win in the 21st Century” (Regnery, 2009) and vice president of the Edelman public relations firm in Washington.