January 11, 2011
Jared Loughner. (Pima County Sheriff's Dept. via The Arizona Republic/Courtesy The Associated Press

Jared Loughner.
(Pima County Sheriff's Dept. via The Arizona Republic/Courtesy The Associated Press)

Free Speech Not on Trial in Giffords Shooting

NASHVILLE — Hold on, there, sheriff.

Before the crime scene had even been fully analyzed, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik was quick to blame free speech after the horrific attack Jan. 8 in Tucson, Ariz., that left a federal judge and several others dead and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords gravely wounded.

“Let me say one thing, because people tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol that we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that,” Dupnik declared in a press conference. “That may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences.”

And in an interview earlier that day on MSNBC via local NBC affiliate KPNX, Dupnik said, as quoted by politico.com: “It’s time that this country take a little introspective look at the crap that comes out on radio and TV.”

The sheriff has company. The next day FBI Director Robert Mueller suggested that threats posted on the Internet were also in the blame mix.

Gentlemen, do the names Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan and James Earl Ray ring a bell? How about Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Sara Jane Moore, John Hinckley Jr. and Mark David Chapman? None of those assassins and would-be assassins needed talk radio, TV political panels or Facebook to prod them into committing their vicious acts.

It seems rather irresponsible for elected officials to speculate on motivations for murder before an investigation is even two days old. What evidence besides their personal feelings do Muller and Dupnik have for their views? Here's some information from ABC News that they may not have considered:

A Pima Community College student, ABC reported, said he took a poetry course with the suspect, Jared Loughner. “One day [Loughner] started making comments about terrorism and laughing about killing the baby,” classmate Don Coorough told ABC News, referring to a discussion about abortions. “The rest of us were looking at him in shock. ... I thought this young man was troubled.”

Fellow student Lydian Ali, also remembered the outburst, ABC said. “A girl had written a poem about an abortion. It was very emotional and she was teary eyed and he said something about strapping a bomb to the fetus and making a baby bomber,” Ali said.

Does this sound like someone tuned in to talk radio?

And let’s drag Sarah Palin into this while we’re at it. A political map on her website used rifle-scope symbols to “target” Democrats for election defeat in 2010. Sounds bad. But then you look at a similar strategy map drawn up by Democrats. It used bull’s-eye targets, according to Outside the Beltway.

And President Barack Obama said of his political opponents June 13 in Philadelphia: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,” The Wall Street Journal reported at the time.

Calls have gone out from political leaders to tone down the rhetoric. But how do we know when it's toned down enough? Is it true, as Dupnik seems to think, that overheated rhetoric can cause deranged people to act out the dictates of their disconnected minds? What about Hinckley, who shot President Reagan in order to impress actress Jodie Foster? Was that Foster’s fault too?

Fromme was a disturbed environmentalist; Moore a militant civil rights activist. Did we blame inflamed rhetoric for their acts? Shouldn't we blame primarily those who commit atrocities, rather than any supposed climate of speech?

Nobody has proposed regulating speech yet as a result of this tragedy. But let’s tone down the overheated rhetoric about so-called overheated rhetoric. Free speech should not be under investigation or on trial here.

In a profound irony, Rep. Giffords’s reading on the floor of the House of Representatives last week had a special resonance. It was the text of the First Amendment.

To learn more about the First Amendment and its challenges, visit firstamendmentcenter.org and 1forall.us.

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