The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Everyone Has a Right to Call Politicians "Idiots" …

... no matter the politician's race, sex, or religion, and no matter whether the speaker owns a gun store.


A N.C. gun store put up this billboard:

Rep. Rashida Tlaib responded:

No, calling politicians idiots or "Four Horsemen [of the Apocalypse]" isn't "inciting violence" or "encouraging gun violence." It is urging people to dislike the politicians—a basic right of every American. That's so when people criticize President Trump or the Republican Congressional leadership or the left wing of the Democratic party or anyone else. It's so regardless of what groups those politicians belong to.

It's true that some tiny percentage of listeners may react to such criticism by deciding to violently attack its targets, whether the targets are on the Left or on the Right. But one basic premise of free speech isn't that we don't treat speech as "inciting violence" (a label for constitutionally unprotected speech, see Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969)), and suppress its communication to the 99.9999% of people who don't act violently because of it, just because of a risk that 0.0001% would act violently.

And that's so even for much harsher speech, such as calling people traitors or fascists or other such labels that some might see as morally justifying attacks. It is even more clearly true of simply calling them idiots or "Four Horsemen" (for a famous earlier Four Horsemen reference, see here). That's true, I think, not just a matter of law but also of political ethics: There's no basis for morally condemning such speech as supposedly "inciting violence." (One might mildly condemn it as being nonsubstantive, but that condemnation would of course apply to a vast range of common criticism, and of common praise, of political figures from both sides.) It most certainly does not "NEED[] TO COME DOWN."

Reps. Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley have set themselves up as leaders of the left wing of the Democratic Party. They have achieved national prominence, not just individually but as a group. In my view, their policies and views merit criticism; but even if you agree with them, surely others have a right to disagree. People have a right to criticize them as a group and not just individually. People have a right to continue to criticize them even when the politicians had gotten threats from third parties (as Omar, Tlaib, and Ocasio-Cortez, and Pressley reportedly have, and as I'm sure many other politicians have as well).

People have a right to criticize them disrespectfully and not just respectfully. They have a right to criticize them with slogans and not just substantively, again just as they do with President Trump or Republican Congressional leaders or anyone else. And of course they have a right to call them "idiots."

UPDATE: I revised the post slightly to make clear that my analysis applies just as much to calling people "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" as "idiots."

UPDATE: Some people seem to think that this speech becomes incitement of violence because it's a gun store that puts it up, presumably because somehow viewers of gun store advertising are particularly likely to buy a gun and shoot a politician because she was called an "idiot" (and, obviously hyperbolically, an idiotic Horseman of the Apocalypse). No: Calling a politician an idiot, whether it's on a gun store billboard or anywhere else, isn't incitement of violence, whether as a legal or as a moral matter. It's criticism, and one of the fundamental rights of free citizens.

Note also the implications of that sort of argument: If this sort of criticism becomes illegal or immoral when a gun store says it, surely the same must be even more so as to gun rights advocacy groups (which tend to have much more public stature than ordinary gun stores). Presumably it would be as to prominent gun rights advocates, too. And if something like "idiot" is "inciting violence" in that context, then of course most other criticisms would qualify. (Indeed, criticizing a politician as advocating bad policies would be slightly more likely to encourage violence than criticizing them for being "idiots," not that either likelihood is substantial enough to warrant condemning the criticism.) What a convenient way for politicians and advocates to try to suppress criticism that comes from their political adversaries.