Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Writers understand that the first amendment is the backbone of our profession, and the foundation of a free society. We must be fervent supporters of the right to speak and write about those ideas we cherish – and conversely, we must accept that same right for those who promote concepts that we detest. But as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes explained, there is a limit to protected speech. We don’t have the right to falsely yell fire in a crowded theater.
Almost by definition, election rhetoric skews to hyperbole. But that’s not what this last week has been about. These are difficult times and there are serious differences between the two candidates on how to navigate these perilous waters. Instead, sadly, at recent rallies the focus has been on fears, not solutions.
The candidates may not be responsible for what their supporters shout out in the heat of the moment, but they can't use rhetoric designed to whip the crowds up into a frenzy, tacitly encouraging their darkest fears -- and then be surprised when emotions dangerously spill over.
Here's what I expect. I expect a candidate to stop his or her prepared speech when someone in the crowd yells: “Kill him.” I expect the candidate to declare unequivocally, that we don’t have to be afraid of our differences, but we do have to fear violence.
Aaron Sorkin wrote in one of my favorite movies, The American President, “America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”
We need to focus on the future of our country. We need to find solutions to the crises of the economy, the environment, terrorism, and a host of other problems. What we don’t need is all heat and no light. What we don’t need are scurrilous rumors and baseless attacks. That's not what the first amendment is all about. America is better than that – we have to be.