Sunday, July 24, 2016

Freedom of Speech Has Limits

West Virginia has once again found itself the recipient of negative press - and can thank one of its own politicians for the embarrassment.

Among his peers in Charleston, House of Delegates member Michael Folk (R-Berkeley) is known as a notorious hothead. He’s looked upon with such disdain that even members of his own party can’t stand him.

House Speaker Tim Armstead became so frustrated with Folk during the last legislative session that he banned Folk from the GOP’s own caucus meetings.

Infamous for his abrasiveness, Folk recently found himself in hot water yet again when he tweeted that Hillary Clinton “...Should be tried for treason, murder, and crimes against the U.S. Constitution… then hung on the Mall in Washington, D.C.”

Folk quickly thought better and deleted his tweet, but not before screen grabs of his statement went viral and attracted the attention of his peers and the media. Reaction was swift and expressed both support and condemnation.

United Airlines, which employs Folk as a pilot, wasn’t impressed with his Twitter hijinks. They promptly suspended the delegate, stating, “This pilot has been removed from flying pending our investigation.”

Folk’s defenders quickly rallied to his side, expressing outrage at what they thought to be a violation of his right of free speech, generally agreeing among themselves that United Airlines had no just cause to suspend an employee for merely speaking his mind.

Even Senate President Bill Cole (R-Mercer) chose to jump on the bandwagon, issuing a statement condemning Folk’s “proposed punishment” as “wrong and inappropriate.”

Cole’s and other Republicans’ ignorance doesn’t change the fact that not all forms of speech are protected.

You and I (and Delegate Folk, too) can speak out against the United States government all day long, every day if we’re so inclined. We can do so without fear of reprisal… from the government. We can be as contemptuous and as hateful as we like, as long as we don’t encourage people to engage in acts of violence or other unlawful activity.

In Folk’s defense, he was merely expressing his opinion and not encouraging people to lynch Hillary Clinton. At the worst, his words demonstrate a serious lack of judgment, and likely some anger issues as well. It will be up to the people he represents to decide if he’s fit for reelection.

The First Amendment means we don’t have to worry about the government coming after us for being critical of it. It does not protect us from other consequences of our words.

If United Airlines believes Folk’s statement is damaging to the company or makes him unfit to fly a plane, that’s an employer-employee matter.

Conservatives, though, can’t be bothered with the truth. It’s more advantageous for them to fan the flames of divisiveness by turning Folk’s troubles into another “us versus the left” folktale.

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