In the wake of the country’s outrage after the mass shootings in Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton — violence erupting so soon after the president’s latest racist hate speech — we should revisit the Supreme Court rulings protecting freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. This freedom comes with important qualifications.
The Court declared in Schenck v. United States (1919) that speech that presents a “clear and present danger” to society, and in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) that speech that is “directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action” is not protected. If no one has the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater, does one (the president) still have the right to broadcast (or tweet) incendiary hate speech from the “bully pulpit,” especially at this time when the country is on edge from overt, associated acts of racism?
We can see where events are heading: toward ever greater, if circumstantial, evidence of a connection between public speech by the president and violence. This is a unique time to reconsider the issue of qualifications of the First Amendment, knowing that freedom of speech in general is a precious right that needs protection always.
James F. Ward, Seattle