In my small, rural community in northern Massacusetts, we have a neighbor-to-neighbor online forum. In fact, we have two, because a few months back, a division occurred over the purpose of the first forum. That forum's stated purpose was to share information and discuss issues of interest to local residents. Inevitably, in an era of sharp political differences, some individuals felt obliged to add political commentary of no particular local import. There were complaints, and reminders that the stated intent of the forum is to "keep it local." An informal poll was taken that reaffirmed that purpose, and at least one discussant was upset enough about that decision to unsubscribe from the forum.
Another participant, also inclined to political commentary, decided to open a new forum — what he called a "virtual pub," where no subject was off limits. That seemed to me to be a sensible reaction — one that would assure the neighborliness and usefulness of the first forum, while offering an opportunity for residents to discuss anything of interest to anyone in another. The predictable happened, and the virtual pub quickly became a place for partisan political commentary. Participants were required to identify themselves by their real names, and that tempered the discussion somewhat, but it quickly became clear that the majority of those who signed up seemed eager to espouse and reinforce a particular political viewpoint. A couple of us have chosen to engage with some of the opinions that have been expressed, and our thoughts are often ridiculed.
I started a discussion thread on the topic of civil politics, and asked if others, regardless of their political persuasion, would join me in discussing political issues in a civil manner, respecting the sincerity of opposing viewpoints and avoiding personal attacks. The founder of the virtual pub quickly responded with a rejection of the idea, because he wanted no restriction on anyone's "freedom of speech." Understand that I was not asking for the entire virtual pub to show restraint — only whether people would join me at a corner table for civil discussion, that we might be more open to finding common ground.
I was more than a little surprised by this reaction, and have since noted that many others have this same idea — that our Constitutional protection of freedom of speech means we should feel free to speak without any sense of self-restraint. It is a guarantee of our right to be disrespectful, unfair, erroneous, ill-informed, obscene, and inflammatory. It's an invitation to join with groups of like-minded individuals — rhetorical gangs — to 'defeat the enemy' using whatever verbal 'weapons' are at one's disposal. This view is especially evident in forums where contributors can hide behind anonymity to avoid responsibility for their remarks.
The tragedy in Tucson became an occasion for a number of well-intentioned people to question whether some circumspection is in order. Shouldn't our leaders, and those who aspire to lead, be expected to lead in a responsible and respectful way, setting a civil tone for the rest of us? Whether or not the recent toxicity of our national discourse played any role in this recent tragedy, shouldn't we consider that inflammatory speech by our leaders might eventually lead to tragic consequences? Hadn't the congresswoman who was shot in the head asked this same question just a few weeks before?
There is, of course, a particular point to me made about a particular person — Sarah Palin — and her response to these questions. It was Sarah Palin's repeated and insistent use of violent imagery in political speech that Congresswoman Giffords had specifically cited as the kind of speech that represents a possible threat to public safety. Congresswoman Giffords herself appeared in the cross hairs of a gun sight on a graphic that was nationally publicized. At this point in time, in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, Congresswoman Giffords has no ability to reiterate her argument. Shouldn't these events compel the rest of us to at least take another look at it? Don't we owe her that much?
Ironically, Congresswoman Giffords had, just days before, proudly read the First Amendment on the floor of the house. Even more ironically, Sarah Palin invoked the First Amendment to mount an attack on everyone who had criticized her own violent rhetoric. "But just less than a week after Congresswoman Giffords reaffirmed our protected freedoms, another member of Congress announced that he would propose a law that would criminalize speech that he found offensive," she complained.
It is a stretch to posit that Congressman Robert Brady's (D-Pa.) plan to introduce legislation that criminalizes verbal threats to federal officials (which is considerably different from "speech that he finds offensive") presents any real threat to First Amendment protections. Such a law is already in effect when those threats are directed against the President. More importantly, however, both Sarah Palin and Congressman Brady are missing the point.
It isn't the legal right to say what one wants to say that is being questioned — either by Congresswoman Giffords or by many others who have lodged the same concern. It is, rather, the wisdom and the judgment of people who are or aspire to be our opinion leaders that is under question. It is a claim that leaders should lead, in part by modeling the kind of respectful, civil discourse that endangers no one, at the same time affirming that the importance of free political speech is to find ways to transcend our differences, rather than tear us apart. Political arguments are almost never 'won,' but can often be successfully resolved when good will is maintained. For our leaders, at least, responsible speech should be as sacrosanct as free speech. For the rest of us, that should be an important determinant of who gets our vote.