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On Nugent, Saving a Liberty to Allude and Growl

Posted: 04/25/2012 3:45 pm

"If Barack Obama becomes the president in November, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year."

Ted Nugent, the musician turned political activist, insinuated the threat against President Barack Obama at a recent NRA convention. The comments come after a long line of past remarks against the president, many of which are more implicit in intention -- one instance at a concert, he held up an AK-47 and said, "Hey, suck on this, Obama."

Generally, the comments are abject and unworthy of even the slightest examination. And though Nugent's most recent attack may be ambiguous, his history of displeasure doesn't give room for excuse -- particularly for security purposes.

The Secret Service contacted Nugent prior to a concert last week, clearing up any potential threat to the commander-in-chief. Better safe than sorry, but investigating a public figure with a big mouth and political animosity only promotes a more restricted purview of speech, especially politically motivated forms.

First, Nugent broke no law.

One may argue Nugent's comments suggest a possible "threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President," which would violate the federal statute, but the court has seen far worse, and knows much better than to restrain any semblance of political speech. We should not attempt to cull simple allusions and assumptions from words; it would only lead to a more confined interpretation of intentions.

Political discourse often gets irrelevant and embellished rather quickly -- it's all about impact as fast as possible. But when the federal government takes Nugent's opinions as a legitimate risk to the president's life, they're obligated to take every other political rally, website or symbolism and imagery presented to the public just as seriously.

In America, no one wants that and the courts certainly would not entertain the thought of such infringement.

In 1966, at a public rally at the Washington Monument, Robert Watts, an 18-year-old male, raised his voice in the discussion on police brutality in response to another protestor that suggested young people should receive more education before fully expressing their views: "They always holler at us to get an education. And now I have already received my draft classification as 1-A and I have got to report for my physical this Monday coming. I am not going. If they ever make me carry a rifle, the first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J. They are not going to make me kill my black brothers."

Watts was soon arrested and accused of violating the aforementioned federal statute. The Supreme Court took the case after two failed appeals -- both courts reaffirmed the judgment and found Watts violated the statute even without the intention of actually carrying out the threat.

The Supreme Court, however, saw it different; the (Chief Justice Earl) Warren Court would reject the initial rulings. In a 5-1 decision, the Court found Watts' statement was merely "political hyperbole," and that the "language of the political arena...is often vituperative, abusive and inexact," and in context -- considering both the speaker's emotions and listeners' reactions -- they found Watts was wrongfully charged.

Watts' remarks were no different from Nugent's -- they both insinuate and merely allude to violence. And frankly, Watts' threat is much clearer than Nugent's, yet it established the foremost precedent in protecting political speech, especially the impassioned moments.

Generally, the slightest hint in a threat on the president's life should be taken seriously, no matter the individual who says it. Given that threats against our standing president have increased by nearly 400 percent since President George W. Bush, according to Ronald Kessler, author of In the President's Secret Service, the situation is particularly suspect.

However, if every public threat toward the president -- particularly obscure and ambiguous comments that don't directly demand violence -- were taken seriously, at least in the manner in which Nugent's remarks were, we'd have one hell of a restriction on speech.

Take Sarah Palin's previous "crosshairs" imagery during the 2010 November mid-term elections -- even at the time, given the Arizona Jared Loughner shooting had just occurred, many pundits blamed Palin for perpetuating such violence.

For many of us in college, we delved into politics during a time of serious hate and disapproval; the variety and degree to which people voiced their displeasure -- both in humor and rage -- of George W. Bush knew no bounds. We grew up seeing such rhetoric -- and maybe we've grown numb to such claims.

Nevertheless, while Nugent may not have broken the law, there is a legitimate case to be made that his words do not deserve First Amendment protection.

In 1942, in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, the Supreme Court found that "the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or 'fighting' words -- those which, by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace," do not fit into the well-defined classes of free speech. These "fighting words" do not serve any legitimate purpose or expression of ideas -- they are of "slight social value," as the Court put it -- and therefore do not earn constitutional protection.

Are Ted Nugent's words "fighting words?" It's simply a matter of opinion and perspective. One may see it as a joke, another a serious ploy for action.

In this case, the Secret Service saw Nugent's recent comments as only another mark on his resume and felt it deserved an investigation. But those at the convention, or at any political rally for that matter, come to be roused and galvanized. These remarks are certainly not of "slight" value to them.

There remains a fine line between keeping our freedoms intact -- absolutely devoid of exception -- and protecting the public from actual harm. When that line skews ever so slightly, so too does the prestige of our available forms of speech.

Ideally, Nugent should be repressed -- few could encourage such language. Yet, some words, though low, must be protected in principle to keep liberties straight.

Armand Resto is a senior and editor of the forum for The Daily Barometer.

 

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