As Donald Trump, Lindsey Graham and other GOP leaders use their First Amendment rights to predict (and incite) riots in the streets, is it time to re-look the idea of Freedom of Speech?
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads,
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
One Amendment that allows the establishment and practice of religion, the right to free speech and a free press and the right to peaceably assemble. All important, logical and acceptable rights in a democracy. Except when they’re not. Particularly regarding the freedom of speech when that speech is expressed by senior public figures, speaking from a media soap box that allows that speech to be readily distributed and interpreted by their followers and acolytes as a call to action against the rule of law and as open and/or coded incitements to riot.
Case in point #1: Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina
Graham, once an unapologetic Trump critic, now his most vociferous sycophant, forecast recently that there will be “riots in the streets” if former President Donald Trump were to be criminally charged over the cache of classified documents hauled out of his Mar-a-Lago estate by federal agents earlier this month. “If there is a prosecution of Donald Trump for mishandling classified information after the Clinton debacle … there’ll be riots in the streets.”
As reported by Steve Benen, an MSNBC producer and bestselling author of “The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics:”
It wasn’t a slip of the tongue. Toward the end of the interview, the senator returned to the subject, adding, “If they try to prosecute President Trump for mishandling classified information after Hillary Clinton set up a server in her basement, there literally will be riots in the street. I worry about our country.”
This was, to be sure, a brief quip from a Trump sycophant with a history of making over-the-top predictions that nearly always fail to come to fruition. There’s certainly a temptation to simply roll one’s eyes at Graham’s latest drivel and move on.
But in this instance, it’s not that simple.
As federal law enforcement faces an escalating number of threats from right-wing extremists, casual rhetoric — on a national outlet aligned with Republican politics — about street violence is not easily ignored. What’s more, let’s not overlook the fact that when Graham’s comments started circulating via social media, Trump himself promoted the senator’s prediction.
Case in point #2: Michael Gableman, former Wisconsin state Supreme Court Justice
Gableman, who was hired to probe the 2020 election by Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in 2021, was fired earlier this summer after producing no evidence that called the result into question. Despite finding no irregularities, earlier this month he told a group of Republicans that a revolution against government officials over the 2020 election has become necessary but said people have become too comfortable to water the “tree of liberty” with blood. The “Justice” went on to say, “Our comfort is holding us back from taking the action that is necessary. But it’s that very comfort that is keeping us from what our founders knew to be the only way to keep an honest government, which is revolution. In his remarks, Gableman paraphrased Thomas Jefferson who wrote a few years after the Revolutionary War:
What country before ever existed a century and half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms.
The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
Case in point #3: Donald J. Trump, twice impeached former President of the United States
In an interview with conservative radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt last week Trump said the nation would face “problems … the likes of which perhaps we’ve never seen” if he is indicted over his handling of classified documents after leaving office, an apparent suggestion that such a move by the Justice Department could spark violence from Trump’s supporters. Trump told Hewitt, “Americans would not stand” for his prosecution. “I think if it happened, I think you’d have problems in this country the likes of which perhaps we’ve never seen before. I don’t think the people of the United States would stand for it.”
To his credit, Hewitt asked Trump what he meant by “problems,” to which, in true Trumpian gibberish, Trump answered, “I think they’d have big problems. Big problems. I just don’t think they’d stand for it. They will not sit still and stand for this ultimate of hoaxes”
Three cases. Three incitements to riot, two outright, one a coded “dog whistle.” Should these seditious examples of public speech qualify as free? Without any exception?
I’m reading a novel, “A Gentleman in Moscow,” about a fictional Russian Count charged as a “social parasite” before a Bolshevik tribunal. There is one passage in the book that relates directly to my post today. The Count was being held in a luxury hotel in Moscow, one floor above the rooms in which the All-Russian Executive Committee had met in 1918 to draft the new Bolshevik constitution. Three articles of that constitution guaranteed Russians rights and one, exceptions to those rights, were excerpted in the book:
- Article 13: Freedom of Conscience;
- Article 14: Freedom of Expression;
- Article 15: Freedom of Assembly; and
- Article 23: Freedom to have any of those rights revoked should they be “utilized to the detriment of the socialist revolution.”
Did the Founding Fathers miss something? Do you agree that, with a little editing, the Bolshevik Constitution’s Article 23 would make sense here and now in America? Or, are you, I and the rest of us content to sit back while people like Graham, Gableman, Trump and others continue use their right-wing soap boxes to whip their followers into such a frenzy that another January 6…or worse…is on the American horizon?