The second impeachment trial of Donald Trump was a remarkable civics lesson on constitutional issues of free speech. The meaning of the words “fight“ and “fight like hell” were debated at length. It is certainly true that these words are routinely used in political speech and are not, in themselves, unlawful speech.
But context matters; words that are acceptable at a basketball rally can have lethal results when exhorting an armed and violent mob. In that setting, violence is a predictable result, even when the words “invade the Capitol and attack the police and Congress with weapons” are not spoken.
The former president’s defense team, and the 43 senators who voted to acquit him, did not refute the evidence of incitement to violence, but refused to convict because of a dubious technicality that they had the power to control. In political speech, when there is a hair’s weight of ambiguity, this is called “plausible deniability.“ In the real world, it’s called lying.
How do we judge truthfulness? Pure science, including physics and chemistry, has strict and immovable standards. Biological science and medicine have rules that are almost as strict. Law and history, including journalism, have defined rules, which are more open to interpretation. Religion depends upon sacred texts and the agreement of its adherents. Should elected officials follow rules of truthfulness, or are they free to make any self-serving statement and then claim that it is protected by the First Amendment?
An analogy would be if the losing coach of the Ike-Davis basketball game sincerely believed that the loss would have been impossible if the refereeing had been unbiased. A loss would then be “proof” of dishonesty. Encouraging the fans who shared that belief to attack, injure and violently overthrow the opposing team and their fans would be, in the eyes of the losing fan base, a fight for the integrity of the game.
Our pleasure in competitive sports would be impossible if we didn’t recognize the “truth” of unbiased refereeing, and that the fouls committed by both teams must be called exactly the same.
In other words, we have to follow the Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” which is not only a Christian principle, but universal in all major religions.
Truthfulness also requires that we treat others fairly by using language that has the same meaning to both parties. An example would be the term “witch hunt” that literally means a judicial process that relies on supernatural evidence. A trial or investigation based on the rules of law is not a “witch hunt.” Such a claim is First Amendment-protected free speech expressing an opinion, but it is false. A false statement is not necessarily a lie, because that word implies awareness of the falsehood. A person who makes false statements without awareness of falsehood is not a liar but is culpably negligent.
One of our Yakima City Councilmembers has made false statements about COVID and the results of the 2020 general election, as well as bullying statements about gender and racial groups. As a government entity, the City Council can take no action against this destructive but First Amendment-protected speech. But because he is also derelict in his public duty to attend scheduled council meetings, we can and should consider a City Charter amendment to allow removal of a councilmember from office for that behavior.
Our community would be better off if we elect leaders who can recognize that true and false are not the same and who are willing to respect fairness, even in situations of conflict.