Words and Violence: Drawing the Lines  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    
From AJR,   June 1995

Words and Violence: Drawing the Lines   

And then there is the factor that made a fortune for P.T. Barnum.

By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     


We are word people, so we should know. And we should be precise.

Is there a connection between violent words and violence? Of course. Is that always true? Of course not. Does the law hold people accountable for advocating violence? Of course, sometimes, if you can closely connect the words and the deeds.

Would free speech be violated if people could not advocate violent overthrow of the government? Of course.

Shouldn't we prohibit that anyway? Not unless we want to live in the kind of country the kooks think this is.

So what do we do when the place is loaded with people who advocate violence (the G. Gordon Liddys) or stay just on the edge of that and wink (clever racists like Jesse Helms and Louis Farrakhan and flashy populist opportunists like Rush Limbaugh)? We immediately come to the need for distinctions.

Through hundreds of stations, Liddy tells people how to aim guns to be sure to kill (and not just wound) federal employees. If someone acts on that, Liddy probably will not be punished under criminal law. It would be hard for a prosecutor to connect his words with a specific shooting and the assassin's impulse to do it, and hard to finely separate this from the right of free speech.

But the civil courts may be something else. In Alabama, anti-Klan lawyer Morris Dees flogged the Ku Kluxers into oblivion with damage suits and court judgments that the Klan had to pay people for the violent harm it had done them and their families. He didn't have to put the Kluxers in prison – just in the poorhouse.

That may not be a good parallel, but it has possibilities.

Thousands of radio stations and some TV stations are oblivious to their legal vulnerability. Libel law has made newspapers more conscious of their risks, but radio constantly broadcasts the words of people who don't have a clue about the meaning of reckless disregard for the truth and what is not protected speech.

It's not just that they don't know about the layers of legal complexity that have developed around these terms. They don't know the terms. The antennae are not up, and the lawyers are not on call. A blessed innocence prevails.

Is Newt Gingrich responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing? Of course not. Does he even come close to advocating that federal employees be murdered? Of course not.

Does he happily feed the paranoia of large numbers of voters known to hallucinate about federal power? Of course.

Is there paranoia in American politics? Always, and getting worse.

Someone from the left said he "empathizes" with the right-wing extremists who feel so alienated that they form armed bands to fight the government. What? What? Empathize? The touchy-feely movement marches on.

Sure, there's alienation in our recent murderous kookery. Lizzy Borden had that problem, too.

Has the press failed the nation yet again? Masses of ordinary people are hallucinating about various conspiracies. But don't blame this one on us.

These folks are responsible for their own credulity. People make fortunes because a fool is born every minute. Nothing new about that. It's as American as P.T. Barnum. l

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