I haven’t posted about the indictment filed against Donald Trump by Jack Smith, because everyone else in the universe is contributing to that discussion. But one element of those analyses/debates sets my hair on fire.
Nothing about this prosecution is about Free Speech. Nothing!
I taught my classes in Law and Public Policy through a constitutional lens. I spent the first part of the semester on what I call the “constitutional architecture”–very much including the Bill of Rights. (I was always shocked by the number of students who came to class totally unaware that the First Amendment protects citizens against government censorship–not from other people’s negative responses.)
When we came to freedom of speech, I wanted students to understand the difference between speech–defined as the constitutionally-protected communication of an idea, no matter how wrong or stupid or hurtful–and action, including action effectuated through speech.
Some of the examples I used:
- I tell you I’ll make you a great deal on a diamond ring. It turns out to be a cubic zirconium. My representations that it was a diamond aren’t protected “speech,” they are fraud–a criminal action.
- I call you every 15 minutes and scream at you over the phone. You call the police. I protest that I am engaging in freedom of speech. I’m wrong–harassment is an action, and the government has a right to proscribe it.
- I’m a police officer, and I’m sitting in a restaurant booth. I hear the people in the next booth planning to rob the local bank. One says, “okay, I have the car. You have the gun. I’ve cased the place, and if you are there promptly at two, when the security officers shift, you should be able to get in and out by ten after, and I’ll be waiting.” A conversation of this specificity (unless they are actors rehearsing a scene!) constitutes the initial steps–actions–of the commission of a crime. I need not wait until they are in the middle of that bank robbery–I’m entitled to arrest them now.
- You are a MAGA fanatic, and you regularly post diatribes to social media about how horrible Joe Biden is, how government and the “deep state” cannot be trusted and how you regularly pray for the painful death of all Democrats. Aside from your social media screeds, you take no action to harm anyone. That’s free speech, and you’re home free–at least, when it comes to the criminal law. (If you accuse specific political foes of being pedophiles or Satanists or whatever, you will risk a civil suit for libel or defamation, but absent credible threats and/or concrete actions to harm someone, you will not face criminal prosecution.)
Bribery, Insider trading. Identity theft and selling state secrets to foreign governments are other examples of crimes committed via speech.
One of the reasons people get confused about what free speech is and what it isn’t is the fact that “speech”–that is, transmission of a message– can be accomplished without words. (The legalese is “symbolic speech.”)
Burning a flag (assuming you own that flag and you aren’t violating a dry weather “no burning” ordinance) is protected by the First Amendment, because the whole purpose of that act is to send a message that the burner disapproves of the country. It’s a message that angers a lot of people, but that doesn’t justify government punishing it.
Nazis marching in Skokie, Illinois or Charlottesville, Virginia are sending an equally clear message, even without the latter’s accompanying chants. We all know what that message is, and–again, absent violence, vandalism or other hooliganism–it’s protected by the First Amendment.
The text of the Trump Indictment acknowledged that his lies were protected speech. Whether he believed them or not is irrelevant–so long as he was only posting his crazed diatribes and screaming about the election being rigged, the First Amendment protected him. Once he took concrete actions to overturn the results of the election and remain in power, however, the Free Speech clause no longer applied.
I’ve read several columns by people who should know better, gravely opining that prosecutors will have to establish whether Trump actually believed the garbage he was spewing, and noting that making such a showing is difficult. Those writers need to re-take high school civics. As a better-educated pundit noted, I may be genuinely convinced that I am entitled to your car, but stealing it is still a crime.
Trump’s MAGA defenders can scream about the Department of Justice “criminalizing” Free Speech, but those protestations will only sound plausible to people who slept through their high school government class.
This whole debate proves my point about the deplorable level of Americans’ civic literacy.