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Free Speech and Uncivil Behavior: Self-restraint is a vital element of civil society

The right of free speech, which is embodied in the Constitution, presupposes that such speech will be delivered in a civil and respectful manner. This right should not extend to uncivil conduct that can be injurious to our body politic.

To be effective, a democratic form of government requires open and free debate on issues and the development of consensus for solutions to problems. Uncivil actions that impede or block collegial debate can undermine this process and diminish our capacity for self-government; this includes the harassment of an opponent, attempts to intimidate them, physical attacks or the threat of such attacks on an opponent, and denying them the right to explain his or her contrary opinion.

To protect and support our democratic institutions, Congress should address this threat to the republic by declaring these acts to be a felony:

  • Engaging in acts of uncivil behavior that impinge on an opponent’s right of free speech, and

  • Encouraging a third party to engage in such acts, and

  • Conduct that shows intent to encourage others to engage in such acts, as evidenced by the distribution of material that promotes uncivil conduct or teaching classes on the techniques of such behavior.

While those three modes of conduct may appear to be less egregious as they are indirect in their effects, the reverse is actually true: the indirect actions are the more offensive because of the potential multiplier effect of motivating others to engage in uncivil behavior. Judicially mandated penalties must recognize the more serious nature of the indirect actions.

Reforms are needed that will establish a framework for transparency and accountability in government, and will provide us with tools to encourage (even demand) civil discourse in our political dialogue

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