Too Often “Free Speech” Is Yelling Fire in a Crowded Theater

Posted by By at 27 July, at 07 : 54 AM Print

It’s taken me some time to get my thoughts together about the shooting spree last week in Aurora, Colorado. When I stopped counting, there were 12 dead and 58 wounded in the audience that had, earlier in the evening, looked forward to a peaceful midnight opening of “The Dark Knight Rises” – third in a series of Batman movies.

Shortly after the shooting, authorities had arrested 24-year-old James Eagan Holmes and accused him of the slaughter. During the next few days, a bomb squad dismantled numerous booby traps Holmes had left in his apartment, clearly, authorities said, intended to kill whoever entered the rooms.

The evening news, the night of the opening, told of new records being set. Scalpers were selling tickets to sold-out showings at upwards of $300 a pop, and the movie review site “Rotten Tomatoes” had to shut down viewer comments because many site visitors reacted with vitriol, including death threats, to a negative review of the then-about to be released flick.

I saw the movie at the local midnight opening. Lots of violence, though the theme was clear – good guy defies seemingly insurmountable odds, including escaping from an inescapable prison, and, in a series of bouncing-camera high-impact scenes, beats the tar out of arch-villain, Bane, several times.

Reactions to the movie house shooting were predictable. A Colorado state legislator said the townspeople would be strong, pull together, and move on with their lives. A few shrines sprang up, and a vigil was scheduled. Flags across the nation were flown at half-staff.

Rush Limbaugh said Hollywood liberals were at fault, and gun control advocates grabbed microphones to say it would not have happened if only we made it more difficult for people to get their hands on guns.

Never mind that those with killing on their mind will find the tools. During the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, someone filled a knapsack with explosives, killed one person and injured more than 100.

In 2001, a group of malcontents used three jetliners to kill more than 3,000 people.

Someone in my home county was killed with a baseball bat several years ago.

Pipe bombs are the weapon of choice for others who would wreak death and destruction among us.

There probably is little hope that seemingly senseless violence such as what happened in Aurora, Colo., can be stopped. Maybe it cannot be even reduced, although fortunately it has been such an all-consuming news subject precisely because it does not happen often.

There is a link between it and the level of discourse we are experiencing across the nation. It is visible every day in the unfettered speech of Internet news comment sections, fostered by news organizations which encourage, or at least give permission to, uncontrolled violent speech. Somehow, editors who, a few years ago, would have refused to print an unsigned Letter To The Editor, now, under the blanket of the First Amendment and encouraging audience participation, happily allow anyone to say anything.

Unfortunately, what most often appears is a group of people, at least some of whom likely are strangers to each other, find agreement online at the ends of news stories. People who would not say things to each other have permission to say those things online. Some radio and television hosts even encourage anonymous community vitriol, including death threats and racist epithets.

Freedom of Speech is saying what you believe and allowing the community to know who is saying it. Anonymous name-calling and death threats are yelling Fire in a crowded movie theater.

We cannot stop the violence completely, but we can encourage its perpetrators to pause before they get the idea we agree with them and what they are about to do. Most of us recognize when we become so angry we stop making sense, and we back off. People who pass that point become the focus of the multitudes wailing “how could that happen?”

There is safety in the mob that builds a wall around problem-solving discussion. Sometimes violence breaks through.

Photo by matthewvenn


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This post was written by:
- who has written 169 posts for Rock The Capital
John Messeder is an award winning journalist with more than 35 years experience writing about education, environment and local government issues. He has lived in Maine, Florida, California and Alaska, and, by temporary turns, numerous places in between. John also is an accomplished photographer, and avid hiker, conservationist, oral history buff, and author of several books he has not yet got 'round to writing. He lives in Adams County, Pa., just over a hill from Gettysburg, with his wife and Golden Retriever. He may be contacted at - Email jmesseder


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