Many Americans first heard of Parler, a right-wing favored social media platform, in the past few days. A liberal friend who follows Parler sent me a screenshot of the following post by a self-described, but anonymous, “Colonel” from Jan. 5-6:

“So over the next 24 hours, I would say, lets get our personal affairs in order. Prepare our weapons, and then go hunting. Lets hunt these cowards down like the traitors that each of them are. This includes RINOS, Dems, and Tech Execs. We now have the green light. [All] who resist us, are enemies of our Constitution and must be treated as such.”

I do not regard this as legitimate free speech, and I do not want my government to ignore those who post these direct threats. Posts like this are a danger to our nation, and hopefully Congress has been shaken out of its head-in-the-sand attitude on white terrorism.

I remember two quotations on the limits to freedom from my childhood: “Your right to swing your fist stops at my nose” and “The right of free speech does not include yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre.” Given the events at our Capitol last week, it’s time to reconsider our obligations in exercising our rights, and a good starting point is found in the basic ethical tenet of medicine: “First, do no harm.”

Obviously, both hitting someone or causing a panicked rush in a limited space have the probability of harm. But given the sad history of man’s inhumanity to man, are there additional guidelines, even laws, that should be considered for speech?

Most of us know at least some of the guarantees in the first 10 amendments of our Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. These were demanded by Jeffersonian Democrats, who feared an attempt by the Federalists to establish a monarchy or privileged aristocracy in the 13 colonies. The Bill of Rights was only a short addition to the Constitution, and has needed modification by additional amendments, laws and court rulings to include former slaves, women, minorities, etc.

For many years our airwave media (regulated by the FCC) operated under the “Fairness Doctrine,” which required coverage of both sides for a major public issue. This was eliminated under President Reagan, in effect allowing one-sided, hyper-partisan TV and radio to develop.

I am certainly not saying the Fairness Doctrine would be a solution to today’s problems: for instance, during the Vietnam War most TV coverage was (in effect) government propaganda. It was only after the My Lai massacre, the Pentagon Papers and a growing realization we were losing the war that our news media truly covered both sides.

One solution to the blatant lies on some networks is the incipient lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems against attorney S. Powell, President Trump’s lawyer, for economic damage from her unsubstantiated claims. After this suit was filed, three different Fox News commentators “distanced” themselves from Powell’s bogus claims, perhaps at Fox lawyers’ prompting to insulate Fox from a future lawsuit.

Lawsuits have already bankrupted a few right-wing organizations and their leadership, but it’s an unending whack-a-mole process.

A more clear-cut definition of “harm” — making such lawsuits easier — should start with a historical recognition of past wrongs in our nation, such as Germany’s banning the swastika and other symbols of its genocide against Jews, gypsies and the handicapped.

We need to reconsider free speech when it directly threatens harm to a group. For too long the extreme right wing has threatened individuals and groups with impunity, except the rare prosecution for threatening to assassinate a president. President Obama got thousands of such threats, but only those “active”/”underway” were ever prosecuted.

It’s time to outlaw speech calling for assassination(s) or justifying mass murder.

Bryn Hammarstrom lives in Middlebury Center, is a registered nurse and has a long-time interest in environmental issues.

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