Sunday, January 9, 2011

Bad idea, Bob Brady

It's legitimate -- and right -- to call out vitriolic and violent speech and name it for what is. But this seems a step down a road we'd rather not go down:

Representative Bob Brady of Pennsylvania told The Caucus he plans to introduce a bill that would ban symbols like that now-infamous campaign crosshair map.

"You can't threaten the president with a bullseye or a crosshair," Mr. Brady, a Democrat, said, and his measure would make it a crime to do so to a member of Congress or federal employee, as well.

Asked if he believed the map incited the gunman in Tucson, he replied, "I don't know what's in that nut's head. I would rather be safe than sorry."

He continued, "This is not a wakeup call. This is a major alarm going off. We need to be more civil with each other. We need to tone down this rhetoric."

I'm always leery of any idea to restrain speech -- bad speech is generally best met with more and better speech. Threats aren't free speech, of course, and graphic-design bullseyes and crosshairs can definitely be used to signal that certain individuals are marked for death. But the reason I didn't make a big deal of Sarah Palin's infamous crosshairs graphic in my earlier post today is because I didn't think she was really trying to send assassins after members of Congress. And I think Bob Brady's proposal is a step (possibly inadvertent) towards the prohibition of, well, metaphor

If you want to prohibit threats against Congress, prohibit threats against Congress. But it's a bad idea to simply ban potentially ambiguous symbolism irrespective of context. (And it's maybe less-than-egalitarian to ban the use of those symbols when they're associated with federal officials while leaving the rest of us at the mercy of a crosshair-laden world.) I understand nerves are frayed right now; that's precisely why everybody should step back and take a deep breath before passing any laws we might regret someday.

That doesn't mean that the rhetoric of violence is somehow a good or productive thing. I still think it's a problem for the right, and for our politics. I'm not convinced, however, that banning speech is the right response. 

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