Marjorie Taylor Greene’s pedophile accusation highlights Washington’s First Amendment dilemma

Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) speaks to reporters on her way to a vote series on May 13
Greg Nash

On Monday, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) stated that “any senator voting to confirm [Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court] is pro-pedophile just like she is.”

There’s a lot to unpack there.

An elected governmental official is accusing a likely majority of U.S. Senators — and likely the next U.S. Supreme Court Justice — of being either sexually attracted to or sexually objectifying children.

A decade ago, Greene might have been expelled from the House. Then again, a decade ago, there was no such thing as QAnon, a cult comprised of millions of mostly conservative Americans who believe, among other things, that many Democrats are child sex abusers.

That’s why I don’t think the comment should simply be dismissed as “Greene being Greene,” hyperbolic, nutty and offensive: because there’s context.

There’s no way to prove that Greene wants a repeat of 2016’s “Pizzagate,” when a gunman fired shots at a Washington, D.C. pizzeria in the erroneous belief a child sex ring was operating out of the venue’s basement. That gunman did not act alone; he was acting on “evidence” spread by high-profile conservatives claiming the child sex ring was real. It wasn’t. The pizzeria doesn’t even have a basement.

But Greene no doubt knows the QAnon context, and her words certainly continue the pattern of “shoot first, deny later.” Some might think she’s not-so-subtly encouraging her followers to threaten and intimidate Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), and up to 50 Democratic senators who probably will vote to confirm Judge Jackson — not unlike the thousands of conservatives who threatened the D.C. restaurant in the run-up to the Pizzagate attack.

Regardless of Greene’s motives, the bigger issue is what Washington plans to do about its rising — and increasingly insidious — pro-slander culture. 

For years, nothing stopped Donald Trump — and eventually most Republicans — from believing Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and therefore was an illegitimate president. 

QAnon conspiracies are now alive and well in the hearts of minds of an alarming number of Republicans, with roughly 80 percent either believing it hook, line and sinker (one in four) — or doubting, but refusing to reject it (55 percent).

This is a tricky issue. In Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), the U.S. Supreme Court determined that speech could be punished only “where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”

So — for example — even if Greene believes that calling U.S. senators “pro-pedophile” could incite threats or violence against those senators, that still appears to be protected speech: She’s not directing anyone to act; she’s not personally producing any actions. Yes, she might be inciting fellow adherents … but can anyone prove that she intended to incite “imminent lawlessness”?

Dog whistles work for a reason.

What the law doesn’t hear, true believers certainly do.

The core questions Washington needs to address are: (a) How much political slander is too much? and (b) Who will be blamed the next time a gunman opens fire on people in the name of slander? These issues go hand-in-hand.

Let’s say, for example, Greene’s words become the norm by the year 2025. The president, vice president, senators, and U.S. representatives use their microphones and megaphones to call their political enemies child rapists. They issue press releases demanding that their election opponents prove their innocence on missing-children cases. They produce ads that begin with “re-enactments” of political enemies abusing kids. If you think that’s far-fetched, consider the fake video at a pro-Trump conference three years ago that “showed” the former president violently murdering media members and his political adversaries.

In Washington — and in society at large — the lines of decency are impermanent. What has been done can and will be done again, only more effectively. 

Perhaps the best way to combat this impending barrage is to rethink First Amendment laws, particularly as they apply to those with the means to rally millions at the push of a button — because as we’ve seen time and again, there are costs associated with unabated slander, and it doesn’t take much to push some people over the edge.

While free-speech laws should reflect the importance of protecting the powerful from the consequences of their words, these laws also should consider what would happen if such consequences become the norm in a less civilized society.

B.J. Rudell is a longtime political strategist, former associate director for Duke University’s Center for Politics, and recent North Carolina Democratic Party operative. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on presidential campaigns, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.

Tags campaign speech codes Dog whistle Donald Trump Far-right politics First Amendment rights free speech gun violence incitement incitement of violence Ketanji Brown Jackson Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmation hearing Lisa Murkowski Marjorie Taylor Greene Marjorie Taylor Greene Mitt Romney pedophile Pizzagate conspiracy theory QAnon qanon conspiracy slander Susan Collins Twitter

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