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Spin Control

Thu., Sept. 10, 2009, 11:09 a.m.

Whose pants on fire?

Didn't take long for the left and the right to grab onto a two-word outburst during President Obama's speech Wednesday night.

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., called the White House to apologize for shouting "You lie," when Obama was talking about health care and illegal immigrants. But some right wing blogs are defending his outburst, saying dissent is as acceptable in a presidential speech as standing and clapping. Operation Rescue and some other groups also are using the "L" word in their press releases Thursday morning.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, meanwhile, had a fund-raising appeal out first thing Thursday morning, proclaiming that heckling the president is unacceptable and asking donors' help in raising $100,000 in 48 hours to show Wilson "that we will not stand for our president being called a liar in front of the nation."

Disrespect has been the hallmark of the summer, the DCCC contends: "But disrespecting the President before the eyes of the nation and just at the moment when President Obama was offering his solution to the greatest challenge of our time is truly an outrage."

OK, so Wilson's outburst was not a classy thing to do. One should expect better of a congressman, although with the current low regard the nation has for members of Congress, that may be debatable.

But is a two-word outburst during a high-ranking politician's talk acceptable free speech?

A court case based in Spokane would suggest that it is.

Go inside the blog to read more.

In October 1968, Vice Presidential candidate Spiro Agnew was giving a speech in downtown Spokane at the Parkade Plaza. During that speech, Gonzaga University student Peter McDonough shouted "War monger". McDonough didn't just get a drop dead look from the speaker, like Wilson did Wednesday night. He got arrested, charged with disorderly conduct and tossed in jail.

GU students took up a collection and hired Carl Maxey to defend McDonough. They lost the trial, but appealed. Eventually the state Supreme Court weighed in on the case and dismissed the charge, saying in part that shouting the word once "without more to indicate a further purpose or intention of breaking up the meeting, or to deprive the speaker of his audience, or to interfere with the rights of others to hear, or the speaker to speak – did not amount to a disturbance of the peace, in fact or in law."

That's not a blanket exemption for heckling, of course. But it is a case that lends some support for speaking out at a political speech.

What do you think? Was Wilson's outburst protected free speech, or over the line? add a comment below




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The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.