Putting pen to paper just got a whole lot more monumental. Words, declared the men in black robes, actually mean something.
Yes, in this age of First Amendment rights, an era where “Sue me!” is a comeback taunt, a time in history when Nazi imagery is evoked against political foes, an official representative of the nation’s more serious branch ruled that words can kill.
It’s nearly a century since the Supreme Court put the first crimp on the First Amendment, ruling in Schenck v. United States that “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater” is not protected speech. A Massachusetts judge declared Friday: Any words used to persuade someone to take an action are not protected speech.
The shocking case which drew out this decision has transfixed the nation. Michelle Carter, then a 17-year-old playing on the fears and anxieties of a young man emerging from severe depression, urged him in a text storm over a few weeks to take his life. Telling him that his family will “get over” him, Carter used manipulation and bullying tactics until Conrad Roy did her wishes.
She was not prosecuted for murder, as she should have been, but for involuntary manslaughter, or the secular equivalent of the halachic phrase every yeshivah kid knows — “karov l’peshiah.” Her words, ruled the judge, were comparable to taking stones — taking a sackful of stones — and throwing them in Times Square in the middle of the day.
Words were uttered and Conrad Roy is no longer alive.
The case will certainly be appealed since it undoubtedly overturns so much about what we know of the Constitution’s most famous postscript. But the judge’s missive comes at a unique period — and adding the fact that he is a Massachusetts jurist just makes it all the more deliciously ironic.
President Trump is out to radically change America as we’ve known it for the past eight years. He is as much of a radical in this as his predecessor was.
Former President Obama also wanted to change America as we’ve known it for the past 240 years. He succeeded, unfortunately in some respects. Yet, he was entitled to his opinion — on the wisdom of raising taxes, upending the apple cart of health care, cozying up to enemies such as Cuba and Iran while distancing from traditional allies. Was he wrong? It’s all relative; pick your own opinion.
But the worst invective Obama ever got was being termed a socialist, having his birthplace and presidency questioned — normal fare for the leader of the world’s first democracy. His mainstream opposition (and I emphasize “mainstream”) never called for his impeachment, didn’t call for the extermination of his party, didn’t have Nazi imagery superimposed over his face.
For some reason, Trump’s ambition to make America great again, or bring the country back to how it was several decades ago, has awakened all this.
As the editor responsible for the cartoons in the weekly Features section of Hamodia, I go through a sizable pile of what thoughts bubble through the minds of our nation’s foremost cartoonists on a weekly basis.
It’s not pretty. On a good week, we get plain nasty cartoons; bad weeks serve us up Trump putting people in barbed wire concentration camps, liberal mentions of Goebbels and Marx (how did they get together?), and generous helpings of swastikas and Hitler mustaches. The mainstream Democratic party regularly accuses the president of seeking to “kill” sick people by reforming the health-care system, says that a difference of opinion on how to combat gun violence means Republicans want people to die, and accuses them of stealing bread out of the mouths of poor people because of their tax plan.
A cloud of permissiveness has settled over the country in this regard.
Words matter. James Hodgkinson of Tennessee certainly imbibed words literally. A volunteer for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign last year, he spilled out his thoughts on socialism, gun control and taxes in a steady dribble of tweets. What got him angriest, though, was Trump.
In April he read a New York Times article headlined, “A Who’s Who List of Agencies Guarding the Powerful” and a sentence there caught his eye. It divulged that members of Congress practice baseball in the early mornings in an Alexandria, Va. public park. With little security — only a Capital Police SUV parked nearby.
Within days, Hodgkinson moved to Alexandria, living out of his van which was parked down the river from the ballfield. Last Wednesday, he picked up his legally purchased rifle and handgun and headed out to the place. Stopping a passerby, he confirmed that the congressmen playing were Republicans. He then went in and sprayed a hail of bullets, critically wounding Rep. Steve Scalise and three others.
Those who have used inflammatory language against the president and his party must realize that they may mean politics but others take it literally.
Michelle Carter’s words led to a suicide.
President Trump’s detractors’ words led to an attempted homicide.
The events of the past week was a frightening reminder of the power of words. A years’ worth of words led to a near-killing on Wednesday. A judge ruled on Friday that words matter.
Verbiage in America is turning toxic. This word cloud must be dissipated before we face a downpour.