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The Logan Act and the Treason Meme: Click Bait for Liberals

03/12/2015 09:04 am ET | Updated May 12, 2015
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There are important debates to be had about brand new baby senator Tom Cotton's ill-advised letter to the leaders of Iran. But none of those debates have anything to do with treason, or the so-called Logan Act. All the stuff flying around the Internet about Republican senators violating the Logan Act is click bait. I haven't seen a single Constitutional Law professor say this is a real thing, for good reason. I used to teach Constitutional Law. Nobody's going to charge anybody with this. It's not treason either under any reasonable definition. I'd call it a stupid counter-productive political stunt. That's what Hillary called it.

This click bait is all over my Facebook feed, growing like kudzu. My friends are smart people. But even smart people don't know much about interpreting the language of a very old federal statute that sounds as if it actually might mean something. Laws are much more than the words on the page; there is precedent, and context, which can make the difference between a law with teeth and a meaningless piece of claptrap.

Near as I can tell, this Logan Act nonsense got started when a petition was put up on MoveOn's petition page calling for Speaker Boehner to be prosecuted for inviting Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress. Petitions are a big part of the click bait culture, as they give the illusion of activism; this illusion is sometimes called slactivism. You don't have to spend long hours organizing or turning out the vote, just click here, sign here!

I've been trying to explain this to my friends for a couple of days now, and was glad to see Lawrence O'Donnell take the time to do so during his Tuesday night MSNBC broadcast of The Last Word. O'Donnell's a lawyer and a former senate aide, and he decimated both the Logan Act meme and the treason meme with admirable clarity here.

There are sites which send around petitions to charge Republican senators with treason, stating erroneously that the senators who signed the letter to Iran could be arrested for violating the Logan Act, and other nonsense. These sites get money for each click. Then they have your email or your Facebook and maybe all your Facebook friends, and will continue to send click bait. People waste time signing useless petitions and sharing them. This click bait money is not the same as supporting a political party, or a candidate. The click bait money props up the organization sending the click bait, and in my opinion this is all money and time that would be better spent funding candidates or real activists (who do more than send out crap on the internet).

The worst part is, the more outrageous and partisan their posts, the more click bait, the more money they raise. This creates a bias against real debate and discussion, which is complex, and a bias toward what is simplistic, but most likely to raise blood pressure enough to generate a quick click. I'm tough on right-wing media, but feel strongly we have to be equally tough on left-wing media that doesn't educate or help, but really exists to raise money by appealing to the most rabidly partisan arguments. In my humble opinion, sites peddling click bait are like Fox News for liberals. They gin up the emotions of good people to make money.