Speech police steady crosshairs on First Amendment after Ariz. shooting

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This week is enough to make one long for the days when we’d just blame the Arizona shooting on video games and flagrantly use the tragedy to regulate that kind of speech.

In what has become a modern American custom, the media began a frantic, mostly fact-free “national conversation” this week about a national tragedy while trauma surgeons were still packing wounds. In the past, this kind of speculative blame-placing has been unfair and uninformed, making targets of Doom, role-playing, action movies, or Pantera despite unconvincing evidence they influenced the crimes at hand.

But this time, the national conversation’s clumsy crosshairs are trained on core political speech. While blood was still pooling in a Tucson parking lot, before we even knew the names of the victims, a not small number of very small people decided that the deaths of those victims, the pain of their families, and the trauma of a nation would be useful tools for hurting their political adversaries. To call these people political ambulance chasers would be an insult to the comparatively sensitive men and women who populate the commercial breaks on “Judge Judy.”

But in the toxic swirl of panic, stupidity and opportunism that is a national conversation, the media pegged a year-old graphic from the political website of a former governor as the root cause of a shooting rampage. By extension, the political rhetoric of Tea Party activists and any right-leaning elected official might be similarly “inciteful,” so we are having a national conversation about limiting one side of the conversation.

There is no evidence the shooter was actually inspired by any mainstream political philosophy or figure, but a child watching TV coverage would have thought the alleged shooter’s name was Rhetoric long before he realized it was Jared Lee Loughner. Rhetoric was the suspect most closely examined. Our rhetorical guardians claim to have good intentions, but the lack of evidence betrays their utter lack of sincerity.

Once a root cause was identified, our friends on their hobby horses were off to the races, paying tribute to the too-short lives of the noble, brave, and heart-breakingly young the only way they knew how—with mind-blowingly stupid pieces of legislation.

Rep. Bob Brady (D-PA) proposed a bill making it a federal crime to use “language or symbols that could be perceived as threatening or inciting violence against a federal official or member of Congress,” extending a law that already criminalizes threats against lawmakers.

When asked on Fox News why he would legislate political speech when there was no evidence the shooter was even inspired by political speech, Brady answered, “Then what harm would there be in putting it in a bill?”

Sadly, there is more than one student of the “Why Not?” school of prior restraint in the U.S. Congress.

“The level of discourse is out of control,” Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX) told The Daily Caller. “Yes, I would certainly sit down with [Brady] and look at the wording and see how we could strengthen it. There’s a need to tone down the rhetoric that occurred here these last few years.”

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) would prefer to use the FCC to regulate speech, she told a New York TV station.

“Frankly what I’d like to see is if we could all get together on both sides of the aisle and really talk about what we can do to cool down this country. Part of that has to be what we hear over the air waves,” she said.

During his national TV blitz, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik proclaimed that there’s “no doubt” in his mind that political rhetoric, vitriol, talk radio, Rush Limbaugh, and Sarah Palin had something to do with the shooting, again without evidence.

And, FBI Director Bob Mueller waxed philosophical a day after the shooting about the wide availability of speech on the Internet as a law-enforcement challenge.

“The ubiquitous nature of the Internet means not only threats (but also) other inciteful speech is much more available than it was 10-15 years ago,” he said.

There has been surprisingly little alarm from the civilian rhetoric police about actual federal officials and law-enforcement officers who sound pretty keen on limiting speech (with Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont as a notable exception). Thus far, they have been more than happy to let political speech be the hostage with a gun to its head in their cynical negotiations over what Sarah Palin is allowed to say.

It is not wise for a nation that prizes free speech to conflate political speech and violence. Even if there were evidence that a crime perpetrated by a clearly disturbed individual had been inspired by political speech, suggesting one’s peaceful fellow citizens are therefore guilty of abetting murder is not terribly good for public discourse.

In the absence of such evidence, it is the worst kind of rhetorical poison.

People who deplore the rhetoric of “Second-Amendment remedies” cannot solve the problem by seeking remedies to the First.