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Free Speech and Quasi-Eliminationist Rhetoric


Jack Shafer’s column about speech in the wake of the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords conflates several different claims into a broad argument about free speech.   Some of these claims are sensible and some less so.   Let me try to untangle the knot:

  • I agree with Shafer that proposals (like Bob Brady‘s) to ban speech that falls short of a direct threat are a really bad idea.
  • Having said that, I think Shafer implicitly overstates the extent to which people are calling for the comments they’re criticizing to be banned — so far, this has been rare.    Sheriff Dubink’s comments, for example, say absolutely nothing about legally policing the speech he decries.    Even public officials are permitted to criticize speech they disagree with, and I don’t see what his comments have to do with “free speech.”    In addition, I don’t think that Dubink or most critics are arguing that there’s some direct causal effect between individual instances of hateful speech and an attempted assassination.    Loughner probably never even saw the Palin target thing — but that doesn’t make it beyond criticism or mean that the climate it reflects isn’t problematic.
  • Shafer argues that Dubnik assumes that “strident, anti-government political views can be easily categorized as vitriolic, bigoted, and prejudicial.”  First of all, he doesn’t actually say that all anti-government rhetoric is bigoted; he says that bigoted speech is bigoted, and he suggests that some forms of anti-government rhetoric is problematic.     I also don’t see what “vitriolic” has to do with anything.    Krugman is good on this, but the issue isn’t “civility,” or rhetoric that is merely caustic or nasty.    It’s about eliminationist rhetoric, which is a different thing than “uncivil” or merely “anti-government” rhetoric.
  • Yes, it’s true that there are a lot of marginal cases because of the extent to which military and other violent metaphors saturate political discourse.  This is one reason I think that trying to criminalize speech that falls short of a direct threat is a bad idea.  Still, it’s pretty silly to think that proposing “Second Amendment remedies” to government policies isn’t any different than talking about “fighting a political campaign.”    And free speech means that Sharron Angle’s legally protected words can be harshly criticized.

UPDATE: A commenter is right to recommend this Noam Scheiber piece, which is very good.

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