The Constitution’s First Amendment enshrines freedom of speech. We have the right to speak out whether our opinions are based on fact or fallacy. But there are also legal guardrails in the form of slander, libel and defamation.
I’m fortunate to have a platform on these pages to say, for example, ex-President Trump is, by far, the worst president America has ever endured. That’s my opinion, which you may or may not share, but it is also protected free speech.
Where I would get myself and the MDJ in serious legal trouble is if, say, I falsely accused the owner of a Kennesaw business who I don’t like of being a pedophile. If it happened to slip by my editor, that owner could sue everyone associated with my libelous commentary and he would prevail in any court of law.
Thus, with our free speech rights come responsibility, accountability and, yes, consequences.
We saw that play out last week when Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga-14) was stripped of her House committee assignments for her irresponsible endorsement of demented QAnon conspiracies and violence directed Democratic leaders. Were Greene a private citizen, there would be no accountability. She can say whatever she wants. But as a holder of high public office, Greene must be held accountable and suffer the consequences for her irresponsibility.
Which brings me to the Big Lie, an expression coined by Adolph Hitler in “Mein Kampf” (My Struggle) to describe a lie (quoting Hitler) so “colossal,” the public would never believe the big liar would “have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”
Trump’s Big Lie is he won the 2020 election in a landslide and that the office was “stolen” by Democrats conspiring with companies that supply voting technology, Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic.
If conservative media had ignored Trump’s Big Lie and truthfully told their audiences, no, Joe Biden won and there was no conspiracy, they would not be facing legal consequences.
Fox News, OANN, Newsmax and other right wing media didn’t do it. That’s not their business model. They all know there’s a huge MAGA/QAnon audience out there attracted to outlets that will dishonestly affirm their anger, suspicions and prejudices, and that translates into advertising revenue.
So they all amplified Trump’s Big Lie for two months, recklessly defaming and damaging the businesses of Dominion and Smartmatic while endangering the lives of employees at both companies who’ve reportedly received death threats. They also helped Trump trigger the violent insurrection at the Capitol.
Last week, Smartmatic dropped a $2.7 billion defamation law suit on Fox News and its on-air hosts, Lou Dobbs, Jeanine Pirro, and Maria Bartiromo. Dobbs in particular was the Big Lie’s most ardent media amplifier, perhaps explaining why Fox Business abruptly cancelled his top-rated show a day after the network was hit with the law suit.
There is another free speech guardrail in our law called incitement, which is defined as encouraging another person or persons to commit a crime.
Trump’s incitement began Dec. 19 of last year when he tweeted, “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” On Jan. 6, Trump told the crowd at his so-called “Save America” rally, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” and “we will stop the steal,” and “we are going to the Capitol,” which is where, at that moment, Vice President Mike Pence was presiding over the certification of the Electoral College vote in the Senate chamber.
As the insurrectionists breeched the Capitol, Trump tweeted, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done…”
As the ex-president’s former personal attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, told Congress in 2019, “(Trump) doesn’t give you orders, he speaks in code and I understand the code…” The code was definitely received and understood by those Trump supporters who violently stormed the Capitol chanting “Hang Mike Pence.”
So we have incitement, crimes and arrests. This is why Trump was impeached again and why he faces another Senate trial.
Every public word Trump uttered mattered. This is why past presidents have always measured what they said. Trump just mouthed whatever popped into his head, such as injecting disinfectant into human bodies.
He has free speech rights, true, but there’s no denying Trump incited his mob to ransack the Capitol. And when they got there, he made no attempt to stop them, reportedly watching events unfold on television. Two hours later, Trump said he “loved” them and to “remember this day forever.”
Many Republicans want to “move on,” saying Trump is out of office. Others have dismissed the MAGA riot, claiming it couldn’t have been an insurrection because of poor organization and the motley characters who participated.
With a conviction in the Senate, Democrats want to send an unmistakable message to any future president who might attempt a coup. Republicans don’t. There was a time conservatives demanded accountability and consequences. What happened?