ACLU: Lawmakers can’t outlaw incendiary political speech

Banning crosshairs and other imagery in political literature would violate free-speech rights, an ACLU official said Thursday.

The comments from a senior official with the American Civil Liberties Union came in response to a proposal from a Democratic lawmaker to make it illegal to publish literature like the ‘crosshairs’ map Sarah Palin’s PAC published for the 2010 election.

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Michael Macleod-Ball, chief of staff for the D.C. ACLU, told The Hill that such legislation would likely be illegal unless an explicit threat of violence is made.

“Under the First Amendment I don't see how you can prevent people from using advertising allusions,” said Macleod-Ball, referring to the use of a bull’s-eyes or crosshair for campaign purposes. “I do not see how you could draw up a statute that would restrict the use of a riflescope or a bull's-eye in a publication.“

Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.) told Fox News on Sunday that he will introduce a law that will make it a federal crime to publish images like the  ‘crosshairs’ map. Brady made the comments after six people were gunned down in a shooting in Arizona that targeted Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). 

The killings launched a debate over political rhetoric and images, with many openly questioning whether there was a link between fiery talk and the gunman's actions, though there is no evidence yet that the accused killer was politically motivated. 

Under the plan Brady described on Fox News, Congress would extend a statute that currently protects the president and the presidential line to cover congressmen and perhaps other federal officials. 

“I want to protect our congress people in a way that they can’t put a crosshair on us and they can’t put a bull's-eye on us,” Brady told Fox News. “Whoever does it should know it’s going to be illegal to do it.”

But Macleod-Ball said there is nothing under that existing law that would prevent a campaign from putting a bull’s-eye over an image of the White House or the president. If the law were extended to congressmen it would probably not accomplish Brady’s stated purpose, he said.

“The existing statute deals with direct threats to the president,” said Macleod-Ball. “It would be a real stretch to interpret that as preventing this kind of literature. I think any prosecutor who tried to bring a case on those facts would probably not succeed.”

Brady was not available for comment for this story but his chief of staff, Stanley White, told The Hill that the congressman remains a strong advocate for First Amendment rights and that he is working with the ACLU to build a law that will be legal.

“Congressman Brady is working with the ACLU and members in both parties to craft legislation that will extend the protections enjoyed by the president to other elected officials,” said White.