Unfortunately, one of the most predictable things to follow a madman’s attack in this country is a slew of new laws proposed by politicians — often laws that threaten first amendment or fourth amendment rights. In the first of what may be a slew of such measures following the Arizona massacre, Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.) has indicated that he now plans to introduce legislation that would make it a federal crime to use language or symbols that could be perceived as threatening or inciting violence against a federal official or member of Congress. The law will be designed on the model of the law criminalizing threats against the President. That law has long been controversial with civil libertarians and Rep. Brady’s law will only magnify the constitutional concerns.
The despicable attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) (who was shot with 18 other people) has prompted the call to criminalize speech. The matter is simple for Rep. Brady: “The president is a federal official. You can’t do it to him; you should not be able to do it to a congressman, senator or federal judge.” Of course, that ignores the serious constitutional concerns raised by the presidential provision — a crime that has led to columnists, cartoonists, and others being put under criminal investigation for expressing their opposition to past presidents.
In discussing the matter with CNN, Brady appears to see his effort as part of an effort to curtail violent speech: “The rhetoric is just ramped up so negatively, so high, that we have got to shut this down.” Violent speech, however, is protected in the United States, as discussed in this column. Political speech is often passionate and passions can lead to the use of obnoxious or irresponsible speech. Putting aside the constitutional problems, we need to think seriously about criminalizing this large area of speech in our country. We are fast criminalizing every aspect of American life with politicians refusing to accept anything other than a new crime to signify the importance of their views.
Politicians often act with emotions are running high with voters — pushing through popular but short-sighted legislation. I am not saying that Rep. Brady is pandering to such emotions. I am willing to accept that he is acting as he honestly believes is necessary. However, it is not the motivations but the means that concern me in his worthy effort to protect members of Congress.
If this bill is introduced, I am concerned about the intestinal fortitude of members to oppose it. Congress has long been short on civil libertarians and has historically shown little inclination to put constitutional values ahead of popular legislation. I hope that I am wrong. However, civil libertarians need to react quickly to this proposal to educate members and the public alike over the implications of a sweeping criminal provision by Rep. Brady below. Here is his bio.