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Guns at Political Events: A Chilling Effect on the First Amendment

On August 11, a man with a loaded firearm in a holster appeared outside a town hall meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where President Obama was speaking. He carried a sign that said: "It is Time to Water the Tree of Liberty"—a reference to Thomas Jefferson's statement that "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." Neither the Secret Service nor police ushered the man away from the area of the president's town meeting. ("Protestor at Obama Healthcare Town Hall Carried 9mm Pistol-Legally," Guardian, August 12, 2009)

On August 17, a reported dozen people carrying guns, including two with assault rifles, were among protestors outside a convention center in Phoenix, Arizona, where President Obama was speaking. It was the latest incident where protestors with guns were seen outside events where the president had appeared to speak about his healthcare proposals, which right-wing opponents denounce as an assault on liberty. Neither the Secret Service nor police ushered the persons carrying guns away from the event, nor were any persons carrying firearms arrested. ("Armed Men Seen Outside Barack Obama Event," Telegraph/UK [via Common Dreams], August 18, 2009)

Compare this restraint by the Secret Service and police to the following events.

In July 2008, a 61-year-old librarian was arrested at a McCain campaign event in Denver for carrying a sign that read, "McCain=Bush." ("Woman Arrested at McCain Event for ‘McCain=Bush' Sign," AlterNet, July 7, 2008)

In 2005, three people were ejected by police from a Bush town hall meeting in Denver after they arrived in a car with a bumper sticker that read, "No More Blood for Oil." ("Politicians Are Stifling Dissent, Critics Say," Knight-Ridder [via Common Dreams], February 4, 2006)

In October 2004, three school teachers in Medford, Oregon, were threatened with arrest by police and thrown out of a political rally featuring President Bush after they showed up wearing T-shirts with the slogan, "Protect Our Civil Liberties." ("Teachers' T-Shirts Bring Bush Speech Ouster," NewsChannel 8, Portland [via Common Dreams], October 15, 2004)

In July 2004, a Wisconsin county supervisor wearing a blue-denim shirt over a T-shirt that said "Kerry for President" was ejected from a Bush campaign speech after the Secret Service reportedly took his driver's license, social security number, and phone number. (" County Supervisor Booted from Bush Event for Wearing Hidden Kerry T-Shirt," The Progressive, July 22, 2004)

From the standpoint of the U.S. Constitution, the heavy-handed treatment of liberal school teachers, librarians, and county supervisors and the more deferential approach to armed right-wing protestors, makes no sense. While there would be no threat to the Constitution in the months and years ahead if dozens or hundreds of school teachers showed up at Republican political events wearing T-shirts with political messages that did not incite violence, the threat of violence would be extreme if as many armed right-wing protestors appeared at Democratic events. Even in the absence of actual violence, the implicit threat of violence by the appearance of armed right-wing protestors represents an unacceptable chilling effect on the First Amendment rights of Americans.    

Black's Law Dictionary defines "chilling effect" as "the result of a law or practice that seriously discourages the exercise of a constitutional right, such as ... the right of free speech." Who could credibly argue that the appearance of armed right-wing protestors at Democratic political events would have no chilling effect on the First Amendment rights of Democrats to attend those events, and to express their political preferences with regard to healthcare, global warming, or gun-control? Mustering the courage to show up and speak up at Democratic political events in the presence of armed right-wing protestors obviously poses an undue burden on the First Amendment rights of Democrats, including on Democratic presidents, congressional officials, and candidates for office.

Nor does the alleged Second Amendment right of an individual to a firearm trump the First Amendment rights of Americans. While the federal courts have treated First Amendment rights as fundamental to the Constitution, the same courts have not treated any Second Amendment right in a similar manner.

The Congress and the president have a compelling public interest and constitutional duty to protect the First Amendment, and the safety of elected officials and their supporters, by outlawing the discretion of gun owners to appear at political events with their weapons.    

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