As we all mourn the loss of life in the Arizona shooting and hope for the speedy recovery of those injured, I can not help but wonder what extent the rise of internet and media hate speech played at a minimum, a tinderbox role in the event. One only has to use Google and stare in wonder at the breadth of the angry net to understand how this could happen and mind boggle at the fact that it has not happened more often.
Should society become less tolerant of viral hatred and online rants that even tangentially target individuals or classes even though the 1st Amendment protects such speech? Anger, threats and whacked out nut jobs abound in an boundaryless arena that often seems to value protection of rhetoric over the safety of the individual. The downside and upside of a free and democratic society. It however, seems clear that while the 1st Amendment still provides the same guidelines set out in cases like Brandenburg v. Ohio, society as a whole is becoming less tolerant of such internet vitriol. Should the 1st Amendment also morph to take more notice of the threat and offer less protection to violent rants and media incitement? It appears that it is happening even without the blessing of SCOTUS.
As a society we are becoming less tolerant of angry people on the internet, especially when those angry people incite other angry people to take action even when those people are unknown. It used to take more than theoretical action and nebulous calls to action. There had to be real an imminent threat. That is no longer the case. Outside of courtrooms and far away from 1st Amendment legal briefs, a post 9-11 and Nidal Malik Hasan society is becoming more thin skinned to veiled written threats that may have one time never made it to a jury but now are taken seriously and result in convictions even though there is no real imminent threat to the intended recipient or even to a general class of individuals. Prosecutors are getting convictions on web rants and internet threats in which ranters are left to wonder what went wrong while they do prison time and their appeal winds its way through the court thinking they had followed the “can’t touch me” 1st Amendment blueprint. As society becomes more fearful and tired of such internet vitriol the 1st Amendment becomes less of a Kryptonite shield and such arguments to a jury are more likely to fall of deaf ears. Times are changing. The 1st Amendment and the societal concept of “free speech” is changing with them.