Brady Puts Bill of Rights in Crosshairs

Published January 20, 2011

I was driving on I-75 in my home state nearly two weeks ago, enjoying the music of public radio at its finest. Until the horrible news of the Tucson bloodbath ended that peaceful interlude.

It wasn’t long before James Fallows, the Atlantic Monthly’s national correspondent, “went there” on NPR’s All Things Considered:

“[I]t may be the case that certainly, there are times in American history where the mood and tone of political rhetoric becomes more violence-tinged than in other times. And I think we have seen that in the last year or two. And there was this famous poster put out this last summer by the Sarah Palin political action committee, which had targets on the seats of 20 Congress people that went into defeat, including Congresswoman Giffords.”

Can’t say I didn’t see it coming. Show me a national tragedy, and I’ll show you a pile-on.

Before long, ABC News reported Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik blamed radio personality Rush Limbaugh for the tragedy. Limbaugh, said Dupnik, “attacks people, angers them against government, angers them against elected officials, and that kind of behavior in my opinion is not without consequences.” Later, Dupnik asserted, “The vitriol affects the [unstable] personality that we are talking about.”

Thank you for your opinion, Sheriff. We’ll make sure novelist Thomas Harris gets your number as a resource for his next Hannibal Lector installment.

In 2008, President Barack Obama referenced dramatist David Mamet’s line about drawing a gun against a knife-wielding opponent from the classic 1980s film The Untouchables, and most people recognized it as a rhetorical device rather than a call for violence. I don’t recall any hue and cry for limitations on the president’s right to speak. If there was, such objections were rightly forgotten soon afterward.

Many people, however, don’t want the public to have the same privilege, even though it’s enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Rep. Bob Brady (D-PA) has proposed a bill to make it a federal crime to employ “language or symbols” that could be interpreted as inciting violence against elected officials.

“You can’t put bulls-eyes or crosshairs on a United States congressman or a federal official,” Brady said on CNN. Despite the unfortunate coincidence of the Arizona shootings coming several months after the use of crosshairs in poster art, his bill is both unconstitutional and un-American.

There’s no evidence whatsoever connecting the atrocity by gunman Jared Loughner with anybody’s particular political statement—and if Brady’s law were to go into effect, an incalculably gigantic number of political statements would be suppressed by the government.
As if Brady’s opportunism weren’t enough, calls for a return of the Fairness Doctrine continue apace. The Federal Communications Commission wisely let that policy expire during President Ronald Reagan’s second term, unanimously declaring it violated the First Amendment. When Congress attempted to make the doctrine federal law two years later, Reagan vetoed it.

Cranks upset with the popularity of right-wing radio firebrands have long advocated a return to those thrilling days of yesteryear.

All of this would allow the government to operate with a minimum of public dissent. (Hey, could that be the real reason behind the proposals?)

The would-be speech-suppressors haven’t provided any evidence that restricting free speech would really stop disturbed people from committing horrific acts. It seems extremely unlikely. After all, tens of millions of people listen to Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin, and the great majority are decent, hardworking, and innocent of any crimes. Obviously something else must be going on to create a killer such as Loughner.

Either way, the cost to free speech would be exorbitant. As President Reagan stated in 1987: “[W]e must not ignore the obvious intent of the First Amendment, which is to promote vigorous public debate and a diversity of viewpoints in the public forum as a whole. …” Brady and the other would-be speech gatekeepers are putting crosshairs on the Bill of Rights. That’s something that really should be stopped.

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of The Heartland Institute’s InfoTech & Telecom News.