Freedom of Expression ends where violent intent begins is Nancy Willing's response to the controversial Sean Delonas' cartoon in which the dead chimp is perceived by many viewers as representing President Barack Obama.
Here's Nancy's take:
Was New York Post's Sean Delonas' message really conveying only that the stimulus was written by a chimp-brain of a congress as claimed? Most people have concluded that the cartoon is suggesting assassination of one Barack Obama and conveying that this big black ape has to be stopped.
Notice the juxtaposition of themes between the title of the post and the sentence in bold above: Nancy says freedom of expression ends with violent intent, but the standard suggested in the post itself is not what the artist intended, but what most people have concluded.
Hold that thought for a moment.
Now let's go back to the guy stopped in Oklahoma for his Abort Obama not the unborn sign on his truck, had the it confiscated by the police, and was then interviewed by the Secret Service. The police chief, interestingly enough, considered the cop who stopped the motorist to be over-zealous.
Here's the response from one commenter (noman) at Delaware Politics:
The pro-life movement has stated over and over that abortion is murder. It is entirely reasonable to construe the slogan as a threat.
There are plenty of nuts who would be happy to use that slogan as a dog whistle for a real threat. Even if the guy was just using it as symbolic language, it was worth checking him out.
Well done, officer.
Notice the similarity of the standard noman proposes to that which Nancy Willing endorses: it's not actually the intent of the individual making the statement that matters--it's how that statement is interpreted by observers that matters. And both noman and Nancy have moved right past the it's offensive or it's racist directly into it's an incitement or announcement of intended violence.
Now let's consider a representational review of the 2006 film Death of a President that appeared in Film Review International:
Alternate history is a perennial of science fiction and has even occasionally been used as a hook for journalistic political analysis, as in the long-ago Look magazine cover-story imagining of President John F. Kennedy's first thousand days. Much more recently, Sean Penn starred in the alt-history drama The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004). That the British faux documentary Death of a President--conceived as a 2008 TV-news special about U.S. President George Bush's assassination nearly a year earlier and the sociopolitical fallout from that event-has been condemned sight unseen by politicians and pundits from James Pinkerton to Hillary Clinton is understandable and completely predictable: They can't not comment, so when they do, they have to play to their audiences. None of them seriously believes that this work of fiction will really make someone take a potshot at the president, and anyway, the attempt on President Ronald Reagan's life came out of a crazy guy's fascination with Jodie Foster, so you may as well decry movies starring blonde former child actresses.
Before I make the necessary point about intent, I should point out that most reviewers considered it a pretty so-so movie. This is a typical response:
For all the controversy surrounding it, Death of a President is a rather bland film that feels like little more than a television documentary.
Now, remember that what I'm interested here is violent intent, not racism or bad taste--both of which are protected speech no matter how much I may not like them.
So let's go back to our two original exhibits, and ask:
1) Did Sean Dilonas seriously mean to advocate the assassination of President Obama? Given that I haven't read anything about the Secret Service visiting his office, I sincerely doubt it. This is a cartoonist who has recently compared gay marriage to people having intercourse with sheep.... His intent is clearly to provoke or offend. Is he responsible for a whack-job or klansman who might read the cartoon finds in it a motivation to go out and take a potshot at the President? No. As cassandra pointed out at DL, if you Google "Obama" and "chimp" you'll pull up hundreds of thousands of images.
The Dilonas cartoon is clearly significant more because of where it appeared than what it portrayed.
2) And Hal Harrison? Does his Abort Obama sign in Oklahoma signify an intent toward violence? Return to noman's standard: The pro-life movement has stated over and over that abortion is murder. It is entirely reasonable to construe the slogan as a threat.
So, if I were to hold the position that abortion is murder, noman believes that I give up the right to use either symbolic speech or hyperbole in a political statement?
Hal Harrison now has a permanent Secret Service threat file on his record, even though the local police chief admits he should not have been stopped.
Maybe proctologists should also be considered potential presidential assassins:
Or maybe the printing of this cartoon should have been the source of a national outcry (that I don't remember):
Or should the US have sent a stiff note to Australia for this implied death threat?
No. All of those were legitimate uses of freedom of expression in political thought. Offensive to many but hardly meeting the standard of violent intent that is being waved around so easily these days.
Why have some people then attempted to play this violent intent card instead of denouncing racism or the offensive nature of the political commentary?
My not-so-diffident suggestion: because it is pretty well established in First Amendment law that you can't engage in censorship or prior restraint for offensive speech, but something like incitement to riot is a completely different...
You can get away with using the concept of violent intent to discredit or muzzle folks with unpalatable political ideas, if you can barrel right on through, maybe finding a sympathetic judge along the way.
This is one of those made-for-libertarians issues that garners us no real friends among any segment of the American political machinery--the idea that moderation in the defense of free speech is no virtue, and extremism in its defense is no vice (sorry, Barry--too good to pass up).
But in today's world wherein competing narratives have all but replaced serious political dialogues based on fact--from either Republicans or Democrats--I'm not willing to compromise this one, even if it costs me political allies, or costs Libertarian candidates votes.
Free political speech--racism, offeniveness, and plain bad taste--is too important to equivocate about.
Where are the Dixie Chicks when you need them?