Editorial: What price, civil discourse?

Heckling at Atlanta event portends problems ahead

He’s both a politician and a political junkie. And he should be breathless about the coming political year, when top Georgia posts are completely up for grab.

 

But state Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, is dreading what the political discourse might become.

Fleming told the Downtown Augusta Kiwanis Club Monday that a brouhaha involving Democratic candidates at a liberal convention this summer is an ominous harbinger.

Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans are two Democratic women running for Georgia governor. But at the progressive Netroots Nation confab in Atlanta in August — after Abrams was “was treated like royalty,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution — Evans was shouted down and largely prevented from speaking.

The incident had racial overtones — as Evans is white, and her hecklers were shouting chants about trusting black women, which Abrams is. But perhaps more important is the utter contempt Evans’ agitators showed for free speech and civil discourse.

Nor did it help that Abrams would not condemn the heckling, which she characterized as a “peaceful protest.”

What a canard! “Peaceful” does not mean moral or legal. And in a civil society, preventing others from speaking, particularly when they have the floor, is its own kind of violence.

And, as Fleming notes, that assault on political speech at the Atlanta event was purely internecine — among those with Democrat leanings. What happens when such rabid partisans are let loose on the general election, to go after Republicans?

What should happen is more than just the rote and often forcible removal of the belligerents — as we saw ad nauseam at Trump rallies last year. The offenders, who are acting in a wholly premeditated and calculated way — often coordinated with others in the room and sometimes with prior training in disrupting political events — should be absolutely hammered by the courts.

Fleming believes existing law is well-suited for the chore, if only enforced. Perhaps. We wonder, though. Is an hour in the pokey and a $100 fine for disturbing the peace — or maybe no jail and no fine, which is more likely — sufficient to deter such behavior? We hardly think so.

One of the things that lawmakers must do is respond to new levels of old problems, which spiral upward as people push the boundaries of the law. Existing statutes never contemplated the kind of widespread and coordinated attacks on free speech that we’re seeing today, and are ill-equipped to deal with this new method of silencing political opponents.

Even if disturbing the peace fit the crime, the punishment may not.

The only way to protect political speech going forward is to protect it with the full force of new law – and, in our view, massive fines for disrupting speeches and similar public events.

And we mean massive. Five-figure territory.

How much is free speech worth, after all? What price, civil discourse?

 

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