Posted by: Paul Chiariello | January 20, 2011

Free Speech / Violent Rhetoric: Stop Mixing Up the Issues!

The present long running and seemingly ever intensifying debate about violent rhetoric in US politics is constantly being mixed up with the issue of free speech.

Please stop saying free speech is being threatened when people complain about violent rhetoric and what should be ‘done’ about it.  Free speech is threatened when the government puts laws or other barriers in the way of a citizens ability to say what they believe.  It is a strawman argument meant to confuse the issue when politicians reiterate that they have the right to say whatever they want.  Of course they do.  But no one (or only a small minority) is asking the government to make laws limiting your free speech.  However, we, citizens of the US, have other options at our disposal in response to those using violent metaphors or even messages of explicit hate.

So it is true, some people say we need government intervention to curb violent rhetoric, but the vast majority of people are 1) merely expressing their own opinions and 2) taking ‘actions’ against such violent rhetoric.  Actions which we have legitimate rights to as citizens.  These actions would be, for the case of violent rhetoric among politicians, discussing the issues and convincing other voters for the next election cycles and, for media commentators, petitioning corporate sponsors to pull out their funds (as has been done with Glen Beck’s show).

A great example of these rights in action, ironically, is from Sarah Palin herself when she called for Rahm Emanuel to step down for using the word ‘retarded.’  Regardless of whether she was right or wrong, she took action for concerning what someone else had said.  She obviously does not believe ‘free speech’  implies that people with power, political or social, don’t have to watch what they say and can ignore others taking action in response.  When it doesn’t apply to her, she apparently does believe, as Giffords in her now famous interview mentioned, that “words have consequences.”  Emanuel probably wasn’t referring to the mentally handicapped or meant to offend them, but, you know what, “words have consequences.”

Free speech does not guarantee individual citizens are required to just let everyone else say anything they want.  We have rights to respond to them, express our beliefs over blame and morality and take legal action via petitions and votes.  Free speech only means that individuals are protected from violence from other citizens and from general measures the government might take against them.  That is all.  After that, we, individual citizens, are morally responsible for doing what we believe we must do about the violent and hateful things that other people say.

Bringing up the issue of free speech when someone claims you are responsible for possible consequences of your words is irrelevant, and a blatant and feeble strawman defense.  It invokes a thinly related topic, which everyone agrees in itself ought to be protected, in order to escape responsibility for your mistakes.  They already agree you have a right to say it, they are arguing you are morally responsible for the consequences of your words and that others should take action (voting or petitioning) in response.

We are guaranteed the right to say what we believe, not a platform to say it or an uncritical acceptance of it.


  1. “…or an uncritical acceptance of it.”

    That’s really true, Paul. We hate the idea of others limiting our free speech, but as soon as what we say is met with criticism, we claim they are encroaching upon our free speech, when in essence, they are simply exercising their right to that first amendment, as well. Free speech is free speech, whether you agree with it or not.

  2. […] Free Speech / Violent Rhetoric: Stop Mixing Up the Issues. […]

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