Does the First Amendment give a free pass to hate speech and violent rhetoric?
In the last few years, we have seen a dramatic rise in the amount of hate speech and violent rhetoric circulating on social media. Some have associated the rise to the election of Barrack Obama as President of the United States, as well as the rise in non-state sponsored militias.
What used to be fringe actions and sentiments, garnering the far corners of the internet, was brought forward to the larger population, in part by engagement algorithms built by social media giants, who have showed no remorse for enabling and increasing its spread, but also by religious organizations and leaders, who have sought to increase their own power and control. We have seen the rise of propaganda and conspiracy groups, individuals who deny shared truths (our own history, basic science, or current events), who blame tragic events on the “deep state” or blame those effected, and who have created cults of followers who believe their twisted messages as truth.
These individuals and groups, who have found their foothold and attracted millions of followers, have largely been ignored or derided by the population. Their propaganda has been protected by many within religious groups, and conservatives in general, as being protected under the First Amendment. These defenders see any infringement on the ability to freely share their thoughts and words as an infringement on their rights, regardless of whether these expressions harm others. These religious groups, in doing so, have aligned themselves with White Supremacists and other hate groups.
What is difficult to determine, is whether this alignment is due to shared hatred (LGBTQ, POCs, Jews, etcetera) or whether this alignment was an unfortunate outcome of shared interests. We only need to look to conservative medical groups to see the hatred expressed, both by members and also leaders of these associations. These organizations attempt to pass themselves off as legitimate, but it only takes a brief look behind the curtains to see the real mechanisms that make them turn. Is it any wonder that some of them have been classified as hate groups?
We could also look at how violent rhetoric from pulpits throughout the country have resulted in the deaths and injury of healthcare professionals providing abortion services. Pastors, ministers, and priests encouraging their followers that abortion must be stopped, have encouraged violence against these healthcare professionals for decades, all under the guise of First Amendment protected speech. They claim that killing these people is justified, since “they’re killing babies.” How is it any shock when we see religious individuals acting out on this rhetoric, either in threats or acts of violence.
I have seen and heard countless Christian leaders preach and teach against the sins of homosexuality to masses of people, encouraging their followers that we need to purge them from this country, consistently denigrating them as individuals, continuing to state that they have a mental illness and are sick. Is it any shock when we have violence and hatred directed at LGBTQ individuals, when the flames of hatred are fanned in churches throughout the country repeatedly?
All of this rhetoric has existed for decades, hidden within groups, smoldering, awaiting its opportunity to rear its ugly head.
Is it any surprise that during and after two terms by Obama, we have a joined coalition of White Supremacist and religious groups? Are we surprised that they are supporting a political candidate who ran on the agenda of “Make America Great Again,” code words for taking the country back to the 1950s, a time when women stayed at home (where they belong), Segregation was alive and well, and Americans were drunk on the thrill of winning the second Great War? We see throughout Trump’s Campaign his denigration of Immigrants from Mexico (calling them violent criminals, rapists, and drug dealers), him mocking the disabled, and consistently encouraged his followers to embrace violence at his rallies.
Many who embraced the MAGA life, have embraced it due to how this rhetoric makes them feel. The violent rhetoric repeatedly promoted by the then presidential candidate, was familiar and gratifying. Finally, a President who understands their need and want for violence, and who encourages them to partake in it, all while telling them that he will be right there with them, covering their legal fees. It was a President who wouldn’t be afraid of not being “politically correct” and would understand that freedom to express hatred should be allowed and encouraged.
Are we surprised when ardent supporters of the President gathered for a rally on Wednesday, that the rhetoric being fed them would end in an assault on democracy, result in harm to public property, result in the death of individuals both protesting and protecting our government, and be praised and loved by the President? Anyone there could arguably say that “I didn’t participate in marching to the Capital Building and destroying public property, so I’m innocent” all while participating in the events which led up to the event. Just as those who have encouraged violence in response to the outcome of the election (I’m looking at countless evangelical pastors making social media statements like “either by ballots or by bullets.”).
Those who have shared these derisive and violent statements are equally responsible for the events which occurred earlier this week. They have contributed to the violent rhetoric, voicing their own opinions, even if those opinions haven’t yet seen fruition. These statements are nothing new, as they’re simply the same old propaganda fodder designed to stir up their followers and galvanize their resolve.
You could argue that these statements are protected, as the individuals sharing these statements aren’t participating in violence themselves, so their words are not causing damage, yet these statements and opinions DO result in actions. While the actions may not be carried out by those fanning the flames, doesn’t the act of fanning those flames make them an accomplice to the act?
As authors of this page, each of us have been the recipient of violent rhetoric. It’s not uncommon to have someone call us “murderers,” “baby-killers,” or “pharma-whores” due to our support of evidence based medicine and vaccines. While these accusations may not be violence itself, they often lead to threats with details about where we live, where we work, how many children we have, the harm they plan on inflicting on us or our families, etcetera. We have taken these threats, with the names of individuals who have made these threats against our and our family’s lives to the authorities, and we have been told that these threats are “free speech,” and they have refused to act against those who perpetrated these threats. These authorities tell us that they are unable to act, as the offenders haven’t harmed us….. yet.
Yet even the threats themselves cause harm. They have resulted in us becoming anonymous, they have resulted in changes to daily life based on the possibility of potential violence, and they have increased stress and anxiety, all based on the same propaganda, rhetoric, and lies.
Should free speech have limits? Arguably, free speech already has existing limits. Libel is a repellent of complete freedom of speech, as using words to harm someone’s life by false accusations can have legal consequences. Yet directed and targeted threats towards individuals is protected under free speech, and only becomes punishable if the threats involve physical harm to a person or property. Even without the physical harm, threats cause emotional harm and increase stress, which causes physical harm indirectly. Why shouldn’t violent rhetoric and encouraging violence also have legal consequences?
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