Jan. 6, a massive violent crowd of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. and attempted to stop the Senate from verifying President-elect Joe Biden as the next President of the United States.
Shortly after the incident, many members of Congress condemned Trump for the violence-inciting speech earlier in the day, for which Trump now faces a second impeachment. With Democrats holding control in the House, the trial has already moved to the Senate, where various GOP members, including then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), believe given the circumstances, impeachment is “a vote of conscience.”
Jan. 8, Twitter banned Trump permanently, while Facebook and Instagram banned Trump for the remainder of his presidency. As Trump’s political career crumbled, major social media chose to silence him, fearing he might incite other violent actions among his supporters. Now the remaining question is whether actions taken by these social media platforms violate freedom of speech principles.
One could argue that the case New York Times Company v. United States (1971), which addressed the NYT release of the Pentagon Papers despite Nixon’s warning ahead of publishing, violated national security interests. But, the court ruled prior restraint is unconstitutional under the First Amendment, and the court’s decision was dependent upon whether the newspaper leaked top-secret documents, not upon public safety, which does have restrictions under the First Amendment.
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In this case, Trump’s words incited an assault on the U.S. Capitol. Five people died during the chaos, including one police officer. Arguably, Trump’s speech is what killed that officer and he should be prosecuted for compliance in criminal acts. When someone’s speech, publications or expressions present imminent danger to the public or the government, the individual should face severe consequences.
The potential violence did not only exist on the federal level but on the state as well. A local Republican group in Wisconsin sent messages to GOP members, urging them to “prepare for war” on social media, just a couple of days after the attack in Washington. To what degree should political or public figures and organizations enjoy the freedom of speech?
Words have consequences, especially for political or public figures and organizations. Their words carry weight and influence, which is why politicians like Trump or organizations like the one in Wisconsin should be careful of what they say to the public.
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Under Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment, it is clearly stated that any aid during insurrections or rebellions is a federal crime. If the incitement of violence through speech is considered a type of aid that contributed to the insurrection at the Capitol, then Trump undoubtedly committed a federal crime.
As for the Wisconsin group, their social media messages put public safety at risk and they should therefore be taken down. When public safety is at stake, it is right to suspend the First Amendment.
Moreover, this group, like Trump, should face legal consequences. The State of Wisconsin should prosecute the group for inciting potential violence against the U.S. They knowingly spread the seeds of violence against the U.S. government. Under such circumstances, the group and its members committed a federal crime.
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Another reason Trump and his followers who stormed the Capitol should be punished is for their ignorance of an ongoing pandemic. Trump knew the danger of COVID-19, yet he publicly downplayed it in the news and on social media. He still does not believe the pandemic is lethal, despite the fact that he and other GOP members have contracted the virus.
Trump’s speech killed five innocent people and his ignorance of a continuing public health crisis has killed more than 420,000 Americans, with the death toll still rising. Leaving the assault aside, the mobs on Jan. 6 did not wear masks, did not practice social distancing and did not follow any public health protocols.
Nothing is more precious than human lives. When safety is at risk, individual liberty should be restrained to preserve it. This is the basic reasoning of why the First Amendment can and should be suspended when political or public figures and organizations pose a danger to public safety.
Ken Wang ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in political science.