House Democrats Seek to Curtail Member Speech in the Wake of Wilson Controversy

160px-Rep_Louise_SlaughterIn a move that raises serious questions under Article One and the First Amendment to the Constitution, House Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY) has announced new rules for what members can and cannot say on the floor and in committee. The rules are remarkably broad and arbitrary in limiting comments regarding the President.

It appears that members can still use “disgrace” and “nitwit” but not “liar” or “sexual misconduct.”

The controversy concerns section 370 of the House Rules and Manual, which is being used to bar a range of comments on the President that are in my view protected speech. These include calling the President a “liar,” a “hypocrite,” guilty of a “cowardly” act, or any allegation of “sexual misconduct on the President’s part.” You can refer to the President as a “truthful but cowardly nitwit” but, if you want to refer to a case of sexual harassment of White House employees, you must express it as “the President’s non-budgetary conduct relating to employees in a non-platonic fashion.” That helps clear things up.

One possible approach is for Republicans to line up and give speeches using the prohibited words to force the issue.

This could raise some extremely interesting questions, particularly if the Democrats seek to enforce these rules against a member. I believe the Democrats are simply wrong in such a position and are putting themselves at odds with free speech and the inherent rights of a member in the representation of his or her constituency. Courts have indeed yielded to the prerogative of the House in setting its own rules. However, this may be the exception to that rule. The problem with Wilson’s outburst was that he was not allowed to speak or heckle a presidential address under the rules. This would appear to cover a much broader range of speech.

Members of the House of Commons are not allowed to call each other “liars,” but simply find other ways of expressing the same sentiment.

For the full story, click here.

33 thoughts on “House Democrats Seek to Curtail Member Speech in the Wake of Wilson Controversy”

  1. tamaxpa: The only real defense against govt. tyranny is anonymity. Anything that encroaches on that and filters it down to the lowest common denominator of law enforcement is a problem and a threat. This is especially so when you have laws on the books that have destroyed Habeas Corpus. Alarmist? Maybe. But I worked for the Govt. in various capasities for 30+ years and one thing that was a constant was the delegation of great, life-altering power.

    A seldom used but heavy-handed policy that was delegated by Congress to an Agency head “or his/her designee” eventually, over time came to be invested down to even first level supervisors. As a consequence (real example) the ability to deny leave requests for foreign travel to employees after 9-11 in my Agency became a tool for dim-wits and retaliation against select employees seeking to honeymoon abroad. This became a problem that cost people large sums of money in non-refundable airline tickets, hotel reservations etc. Overlay that kind of venality and stupidity on a group of people that have limited (if any) real accountability to the citizenry.

    Yea, when I said street-level enemies lists it was a considered statement and I was projecting a danger I’d seen made real previously.

  2. If you look at Obama, I believe you must conclude that he represents the far right wing, at least in the areas of the economy, civil liberties and imperial wars.

    He ought to do what we tell him, without being so uppity, is that what you’re saying?

  3. This, along with both Frank and Kucinich showing their ass on the demonstrative resolution, is a necessary component of the Democratic Party and the democratic process that we must constantly guard against.

    To think that this kind of response is appropriate does take a measure of the kind of ‘liberal authoritarianism’ that many on the right find distasteful, disingenuous, or downright dastardly.

    There are no two liberals I respect more in the United States House of Representatives than Barney Frank and Dennis Kucinich. And I have often said that the reason the Democrats can’t manage to march in lock step is because they’re the good guys. But, seriously, this isn’t about what Joe Wilson said. IT IS ABOUT WHEN HE SAID IT.

    The simple rule “When the President is speaking to Congress, you shut up and listen respectfully” seems to cover every contingency we need to be concerned with.

    To lottakatz:

    With all due respect to the ACLU, I’m not sure what intelligence you think the military might have that is going to make the police interested in your person or effects. But during the course of police work, if there is any, I do believe it might be a good idea to let them know.

  4. lottakatz,

    Color me code red on fusion centers! They have been sharing, just like in kindergarten, for a while now. I believe this to violate : posse comitatus, but, who cares about that thing that’s “just a piece of paper”? Jack Goldsmith said on NOW that he thought Obama was correct to legalize preventative detention and he thought American citizens sould be included in the fun. So yes, I’m scared.


    If you look at any thread about Wilson you will see I have clearly stated he was wrong when he said Obama was lying. It is often an objective criticism to say someone is lying. There is nothing inflamatory about stating the truth. The truth may trouble people who are lying, but saying they are lying is often no more than stating a fact. I want my congresspeople to stand up when the president breaks the law. I want them to stand up to other congressmembers when they break the law. I want them to use peaceful civil disobediance in service of the Constitution.

  5. rE: Fusion centers

    very scary, Gestapo comes to mind. I am appalled and see the hob nailed jack boots starting to rise. I never, in all my life, have been glad that the ACLU exists until this point.

    What the hell is going on? It seems that in the last 18 months we have lost a significant portion of our liberties and no one appears to be able to stop it. It is like a freight train from nowhere.

    I knew that Patriot Act was a bad thing and could never figure out why so many republicans were for it. The Department of Homeland Security needs to be dismantled immediately before we are showing are papers and being disappeared.

  6. LottaKattz,

    That is an interesting read. I am scared, maybe they ought to bring dueling back. TODAY.

  7. Bob,Esq.:
    “…what President Carter had to say last night.”
    Right, I’m glad he said it. I was wondering if he would weigh in on the situation.


    IMO if the debate gets out of hand does not the Speaker have the authority to call the Sargent At Arms to remove disruptive members? Things would have to get pretty ugly for that to be a viable remedy but is that not the point of having a free exchange of ideas?

    (I vacillate though, there are days I’d like to see dueling return.)


    Jill: “That right of the people has been nearly gutted. ”
    The link below is pretty frightening. Local law enforcement will now have access to classified, ever expanding information from law enforcement fusion centers. Srsly, the gloves are coming off in our newly minted authoritarian state. Pretty soon gathering in groups of more than 3 will be a suspect act and what you say will get you on a street-level enemies list.
    Yea, I’m frequently adopting the rhetoric of an alarmist because … I’m alarmed. With good cause IMO.

  8. Response to Jill.

    “Civility is not restored by asking people to refraim from speaking the truth. It is a lack of civility to ask people to use weasal words instead of ordinary language to describe reality. ”

    My first point is that Mr Obama was not lying. The bill to which he was referring had explicit language forbidding illegal immigrants from receiving health care (apparently so they can be the vectors for future flu epidemics). His opponents can only make the point that they feel there are insufficient safeguards to prevent them from getting health care they are not entitled to. Perhaps an issue, but it does mot make what the President said a lie.

    My second point is that I must surmise that you believe that dispassionate, objective criticism is ‘weasely’ and that emotionally charged criticism is ‘ordinary’. I must admit that emotionally charged criticism has become ordinary, but the opposite or ordinary is ‘special’ or ‘extraordinary’, not ‘weasely’. In a situation when debate is expected (certainly not in a Presidential address to Congress), governance is better served by objectivity (‘the bill contains no such amendment) rather than emotion (you’re a liar’). Wouldn’t that be extraordinary (and just as straightforwrd)!

    I just can’t see asking people to temper their criticism to avoid causing anger, and to behave as adults in political disagreements as an affront to free speech. The existence of Robert’s rules gives us a template with which to conduct effective debate without generating anger and hatred. You manage to take this proposal by Rep Slaughter and turn it into ‘destroying the Constitution and ignoring the rule of law’ The destruction of the Constitution by Bush and Obama by dint of their support of the Patriot Act, and of unconstitutional executive powers do greatly concern me. Getting exercised over Slaughter’s proposal seems a misplaced emotion, given the enormity of other trespasses being committed daily.

  9. I would rather see them beat hell out of each other than have limitations on speech, especially in Congress. We the people must be fools to elect morons like this to public office.

  10. If I were elected to the House of Representatives, I would say whatever I wanted about the president and other members. Let them try and stop me. I was elected by MY constituents NOT the chairman of the rules committee!

    Plus, Mrs. Slaughter looks like a fool by releasing such stupid, and ambiguous guidelines.

    Congress = Fail

    PS. This whole Wilson mess dragging on makes the Dems look like complete partisan idiots!

  11. Randy,

    Civility is not restored by asking people to refraim from speaking the truth. Civility is not restored by prior restraint on free speech. It is a lack of civility to ask people to use weasal words instead of ordinary language to describe reality. If these rules are passed, they should be challenged by peaceful civil disobediance. One must think the president a very weak man, if one feels there can be no use of ordinary language when speaking of him.

    This isn’t an isolated instance of restraint on free speech. That right of the people has been nearly gutted. There is no civility in gutting the Constitution. To be respected, any person holding an office, needs himself or herself to respect it. By destroying our Constitution and ignoring the rule of law, neither Congress nor the President show respect for their office or our nation. It is time to take a stand. It is time to restore the rule of law, not forbid criticism of the king.

  12. What the hell happened to the Privilege and Immunity Clause? Am I missing something? So the president was speaking. Wilson was clearly out of order, so he is sanctioned. Be done with it. CITIGroup has another facade to screw the people. They are trying to renegotiate Our interest as well as AIG. People beware.

  13. Come on, Professor Turley! Read Article V of Robert’s Rules of Oder, ‘Debate and Decorum’. Do those rules represent a catastrophic attack on free speech? Rep Slaughter’s admonitions may be too specific, but the Chair of any organization can, and should, insist on decorous behavior and sanction those who don’t act accordingly.

    I have had enough of ‘Lord of the Flies’ atavism in our politics. I’m glad someone is standing up to restore civility, even if the attempt could be improved.

  14. Basically, both Congress and the President make me want to cry. It is clear that the Democrats in Congress, as the Repulicans before them have ceased to understand themselves as a separate, equal branch of govt. Just as Republicans looked to Bush to tell them what laws he would like them to pass, so to, the Democrats ask Obama to tell them what they should do. This is not what our founders proposed. The Congress makes the laws and appropriates the money for them. For 9 years it has been the president telling Congress what they should do, each president acting as the “leader” of his party instead of Congress treating him as the Executive branch of govt.

    I believed before the election that the left was seeking their own stong man and that this would be dangerous for our nation. A strong man has no place in a democracy. Strong men are for dictatorships. Yet here we have come to the place where Democrats follow their own strong man, insisting that no one speak the truth or “unclean” thoughts about their “leader”.

    Further, Congress and the President have lit fire to our nation and continue to fiddle as it burns. We lack so many basic rights–stripped away by a power hungry elite. The elite cares nothing for the well-being of most of our citizens. They are engrossed in the most trivial matters, leaving everything of consequence ignored or exacerbated. This has to stop. There has to be a few people in the elite class that care about the rule of law and the well-being of the poor, working and middle class. It is time for them to act along side those of us who seek justice. We the people, must utterly reject the notion that a “strong” man evidently he is so weak that he can’t cope with ordinary language) can possibly help this nation restore the Constitution. The two ideas are completely antithetical.

    If you look at Obama, I believe you must conclude that he represents the far right wing, at least in the areas of the economy, civil liberties and imperial wars. He has adopted Bush’s positions, or even more extreme ones in each of these areas. Unless we want to say Bush was a closet flaming liberal, then it’s time to admit Obama is on the far right. The sooner people recognize this and stop looking for a strong man, the better off we will be. That is because the left will mobolize again for those things we held dear until we got “our” “strongman”. Likewise, Congress needs to quit looking at the President as their party leader and see him as a member of another branch of govt.–one that does not write the laws, but who is bound by oath to faithfully execute them.

  15. On the other hand, perhaps the new rules will force members of Congress to improve their vocabulary skills. The British are far more imaginative and clever in their ability to heap scorn on their opponents. By contrast, insults by American politicians are as juvenile as the logic of the proposed new rules.

  16. puzzling,

    I agree. This not only bans free speech it bans the discussion of reality. Presidents have lied, often, and this includes Obama. Wilson said Obama was lying when, in fact, he was not. These matters may be resolved by an examination of reality, not prior restraint.

    Definitely, should these “rules” be passed, it is time for peaceful, yet forcefull disobediance. If you think there is no connection between these “rules” and the fact that both the Federal and State govt. have denied the ability to legally protest in Pittsburg, you’d be mistaken.

    The president is not the king. When he is lying or abrogating the Constitution it must not be hidden. It must be exposed. Congress seeks to hide their own cowardice and complicity in destroying the Constitution by abrogating the right to free speech, including the naming of clear reality. This should scare us a great deal that they would consider such a thing. I hope their are enough members of conscience left in Congress to stop this madness and forcefully, peacefully, stop the abrogation of our Constitution.

  17. JT,

    I noticed that one of the tags you chose for this story is “Bizarre”.

    I’m thinking something more along the lines of “Fascist Shift”.

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