At the 2017 Glastonbury Festival, actor Johnny Depp subtly alluded to an assassination of President Donald Trump. This has not been the only incident recently in which someone has very publicly insinuated harm to the president with words. In addition, comedian Kathy Griffin participated in an extremely graphic photo-shoot in which she held up the president’s decapitated head. Madonna has declared that she thought “an awful lot about blowing up the White House” at a rally in Washington D.C. Unfortunately, one man found it necessary to go beyond words to express his grievances. Just days ago, a Republican Congressman and four others were shot and injured in Virginia by an anti-Republican gunman.
Now, I understand how important our First Amendment rights are. I deeply value freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Those ideals are at the core of a functioning democracy. However, how free should speech be? Think about it. Should we be allowed to bully or cyber bully our peers to point at which they wish to harm themselves? Should we be able to yell “fire” in the absence of a fire in a crowded theatre and cause panic and possible injury to everyone in the theatre? Should we able to threaten others’ safety with our words and pass those threats off as mere jokes?
In 1919, the Supreme Court case Schenck v. United States established that one does not have the right to free speech if it poses a “clear and present danger.” Now, insinuating assassination and injury to the president sounds like a “clear and present danger” to me. The high profile figures themselves may not consider committing these crimes, but because of their large platforms, audiences all over the world will be exposed to this type of rhetoric about our politicians. As I have said before in my article “How Words Can Shape Politics,” we really shouldn’t underestimate the power of words. Words can influence massive amounts of people and move them to action. I don’t know if the recent rhetoric about politicians by public figures moved the gunman in Virginia to shoot a Republican Congressman and four other people, but words insinuating harm most definitely have not eased tensions during this divisive political climate. It’s about time we start taking our words more seriously.
Now, this isn’t just about threatening politicians. I don’t think we should threaten people in general. No one should feel unsafe because of another person’s words. Suggesting that any average person should be injured or murdered and passing it off as a joke is never okay. So why is it okay to do this to politicians? These are men and women with their own lives and families as well? Why is it okay to put their safety in question with our words?
I honestly don’t even know when suggesting that someone should die became a funny joke. When did subjects like death and injury become comedic? I may strongly disagree with many people. I may find it very hard to understand why they think the way they do. But I will never forget that they are human. I will always wish them well. I would never laugh at the thought of harm coming to them.
Basically, our freedom of speech only goes so far. Once our speech suggests harm or directly harms another person, the First Amendment no longer protects it. If we want our rights to freedom of speech, we must protect others’ freedom of speech. However, if we want our rights to safety and peace of mind, we must protect others’ safety and peace of mind. It’s a very fine line, one I hope we will be able to navigate better soon.