In the last few weeks, leading Democrats in Congress have called Tea Party constituents terrorists, said they should go to hell and accused them of wanting to lynch black people. Last weekend, at an event attended by President Obama, the head of the Teamsters Union, Jimmy Hoffa Jr., attacked the Tea Party, screaming, "President Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march. Let's take these son of bitches (Tea Party members) out and give America back to an America where we belong." (Note: the president was not on the platform when Hoffa spoke.)
So far, neither the president, nor any prominent Democrat has condemned such remarks — even though the phrase "take out" is commonly used to describe an act of criminal homicide. Thus, Hoffa's statement might rise to the level of incitement to violence.
Of course, the First Amendment protects political speech — even obnoxious and abusive language. But the Supreme Court has always recognized that some words are not protected. Thus, in Virginia v. Black (2003) the Supreme Court found that while "The First Amendment affords protection to symbolic or expressive conduct as well as to actual speech...The protections afforded by the First Amendment, however, are not absolute, and we have long recognized that the government may regulate certain categories of expression consistent with the Constitution." Thus, for example, a state may punish those words "which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace," said the court in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969).
The First Amendment also permits a state to ban a "true threat." A true threat encompass those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals. ("Political Hyperbole" is not a true threat.) The speaker need not actually intend to carry out the threat. Rather, a prohibition on true threats "protect(s) individuals from the fear of violence" and "from the disruption that fear engenders," in addition to protecting people "from the possibility that the threatened violence will occur."
Tea Party members could reasonably feel fear of violence from union activists after Hoffa's call to "take out" Tea Party members. Given the history of violence associated with unions in general and the Teamsters in particular (Hoffa's father, also president of Teamsters, is widely believed to have been murdered by fellow Teamsters.) Of course, both the Michigan attorney general and the U.S. attorney general would need to assess the specific statutes to see whether or not Hoffa's words are criminally proscribed. (Yes, I know it is unlikely that Attorney General Eric Holder would follow this suggestion — more's the pity.)
Whether Hoffa's words are criminal or not, with words like "terrorist," "lynching," "go to hell," and "take them out," the emerging tone of the Democratic Party regarding the Tea Party is ominous. It is the language of murderous violence, and it is targeted at a specific group of people. Most disturbing is the failure of the Democratic Party leaders to condemn such language — including Chairman of the Democratic National Committee Debbie Wasserman Schultz — who on national television specifically and repeatedly evaded any comment on Hoffa's statement. No president or other party leader can be held responsible for the utterances of all his political colleagues, nor can he or she be expected to respond to every intemperate word. But when the words are by other party leaders themselves and are nationally reported, a moral obligation arises to condemn such language.
One would have to be stubbornly blind and deaf to the current mood not to sense that the nation is moving towards one of the most combustible moments in our political history. America has had three years of economic hard times, deep, and perhaps, unprecedented national pessimism regarding both the present and the future, angry polarization of political attitudes — and elements of a senior leadership of the Democratic Party that, by its silence, might seem to be assenting to such imploration. And all of it is happening as we enter an always-emotional national election campaign.
It is a commonplace to observe that we rarely appreciate the value of what we have until we lose it. And despite all our current difficulties, America has been — and remains — blessed with a nonviolent political and electoral process. We should cling to that tradition with both hands because Americans are generally a rough and ready people. That we have kept violence largely out of our political process can thus almost be seen as providential. We should not, however, rely on providence in that regard. Keeping our politics peaceful is up to each of you, and I have never seen an upcoming political season more in need of our attention to that civic duty.
Tony Blankley is executive vice president of Edelman public relations in Washington. Email him at TonyBlankley@gmail.com. To find out more about Tony Blankley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.