Leahy warns against calls for government speech restrictions

Chris Moody Contributor
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Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat, warned against efforts to re-examine the First Amendment in the aftermath of last weekend’s shooting in Arizona, but called for “self restraint” from private citizens who use inflammatory rhetoric.

“In a free society – the society we always want America to be – government should not and must not restrain free expression,” Leahy said during a speech in Washington, D.C. “But with freedom come responsibilities.  The full flowering of democracy and freedom relies on the self restraint of each citizen, organization and group of citizens. The printed page, the radio microphone, the televised image, the TV ad, the blog posting and the Twitter feed all have the power to inspire, to motivate and to inform. They also have the power to inflame and incite.”

Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, was speaking at Washington’s Newseum, a towering structure near the U.S. Capitol that bears a 74-foot high sign of the First Amendment on its front wall.

Since Saturday’s shooting, however, a number of high-ranking members of Congress have made calls to curb certain types of speech that they claim may have inspired the gunman. Minority Whip James Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, voiced support for reinstating the so-called “Fairness Doctrine,” which that would restrict private television and radio stations from airing certain types of speech and forcing them to provide equal time to opposing views.

“Free speech is as free speech does,” Clyburn said this week. “You cannot yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater and call it free speech and some of what I hear, and is being called free speech, is worse than that.”

Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Robert Brady, with support from Democratic Rep. Rubén Hinijosa from Texas, will move forward with a bill to ban people from making computer graphics that resemble crosshairs on a federal official.

A wider base of members have called for restricting public access to government officials, calling for enhanced security barriers between officials and the public.

Leahy conceded that while some of the violent rhetoric had “gone too far,” he cautioned against using government speech restrictions as a remedy.

“It is so easy to argue for censorship ‘on just this one issue,’ or ‘just this one issue,'” he said. “No. You have open, free debate.”

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