Is the Political Rhetoric of Sarah Palin Like “Shouting Fire in a Crowded Theater”

Sarah Palin's BullseyeOn Saturday, January 8, 2010,  our country was horrified by the reports of the politically motivated senseless killing of innocent people in Tucson Arizona including a nine year old child and a federal judge. Congresswomen Gifford continues to fight for her life. The circumstances giving rise to this devastation in mortality and injury has sparked a debate about the viral effects of what some people consider the reckless use of free speech over the internet by political leadership. There are serious accusations being leveled over the internet rhetoric of Sarah Palin’s  placing a bull’s-eye over the congressional district of  Congresswomen Gifford  and encouraging her followers to “Reload” in their fight for conservative values. The following are but a few examples of the already thousands of postings (They are worth reviewing): ;×150390 ;


The limits of the first amendment continues to be one of the most hotly debated issues of our time . In the case of Schenck v. United States, Oliver Wendell Holmes articulated the often quoted metaphor of falsely “shouting fire in a crowded theater” to distinguish between speech which is dangerous and false from speech that is truthful but dangerous.The quote is used as an example of speech which is claimed to serve no conceivable useful purpose and is extremely and imminently dangerous. The First Amendment holding in Schenck was later overturned by Brandenburg v. Ohio, which limited the scope of banned speech to that which would be directed to and likely to incite imminent lawless action (e.g. a riot). Despite Schenck being limited, the phrase “shouting fire in a crowded theater” has since come to be known as synonymous with an action that the speaker believes goes beyond the rights guaranteed by free speech, reckless or malicious speech, or an action whose outcomes are blatantly obvious.
When someone falsely shouts fire in a crowded theater everyone expects that the majority of people, although excited, will act rationally and in an orderly fashion. It is recognized, however, that there may be some people that will over react and may even act violently under the stress of the moment. In some ways, we have through unchecked rhetoric from all sides created a crowded theater full of emotion predicated upon fear. The right to healthcare, immigration and the reasons for unemployment are common  vehicles for misinformation that fuel those fears. Thus, the Tucson shootings did not occur in complete isolation. In the months leading up to the recent elections, the fervor and even the success of political movements were measured in part by the anger and even violence that erupted in town meetings hosted by congressional leaders. Hateful and angry speech that pierced otherwise peaceful political rallies was highlighted in the media.  You did not have to look very far to see finger pointing and accusations being leveled by political leaders from all sides accusing one another of ill will and even worse. To some, the pressure building in Tucson was palpable.The murders in Tucson where preceded by vandalism and even death threats.

While I am often at odds with the politics of Sarah Pailin, no one can seriously contend that it was her intention to motivate a disturbed young man to take the lives of innocent people. No doubt  it pains her greatly in the privacy of her own heart to even fathom that  she could have had any affect on these circumstances. Sarah Palin’s critics  are hard pressed to prove that there is a direct relation  between the shootings in Tucson and any of  the conservative rhetoric at issue. The question remains, however, how far a political leader should should rightfully go when invoking images or metaphors that can be used as an excuse or motivation by people for violent politically motivated actions.

In a civil liability and even in the criminal context, the person responsible for inciting the irrational acts of others by screaming fire in a crowded theater is on notice that he or she may be held accountable. So too should political leaders who choose to deliver emotional messages  with incomplete or misleading information intended to  invoke an emotional response be aware that there are fragile and unstable people that may violently  react in a way that was unintended. This is especially true when the environment has been emotionally charged to the point where violence and death threats are already part of the events preceding the politician’s rhetoric. In my opinion, Sarah Palin and her advisors used poor judgment and she will have to live with whatever conclusions she reaches about the effect of her actions. But to focus  the blame on Sarah Palin is wrong. The blame is to be shared by everyone who contributes to the polluted atmosphere of disinformation that invokes fear, distrust and anger.

As a society, we condemn violence as a vehicle for accomplishing social change. Every year we celebrate Martin Luther King day as a testament to that principle. As a people we should seize the moment in the memory of those innocent people who needlessly died last Saturday and insist that our leaders do better. To our leaders, please focus the hearts and minds of Americans on solving the difficult issues that we face with truth and compassion. As the new Congress  takes shape, please  work in our best interest, not motivated by the need to be re-elected or to obtain or maintain control of power. Eliminate the crowded theater of anger, partisan politics, and fear. If you do that, these innocent people who lost their lives shortly after the birth of the new year will not have died in  vain.