It didn’t take long for the left and the right to grab on to a two-word outburst during President Barack Obama’s speech Wednesday night and try spinning it to their respective benefits.
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., called the White House Thursday morning to apologize for shouting “You lie” when Obama was talking about health care and illegal immigrants. But even as he was making an act of contrition to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, some right-wing blogs defended his outburst, saying dissent is as acceptable at a presidential address as standing and clapping, and is protected free speech.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, meanwhile, had a fundraising 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 said, “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.”
Wilson’s announced Democratic opponent in next year’s election reportedly raised about $875,000 in the days after Obama’s speech. Wilson’s campaign told the Wall Street Journal he’d picked up $700,000.
While Wilson’s outburst was good for fundraising, it would not be described as a classy thing to do. One might expect better of a congressman, although with the current low regard the nation has for members of Congress, expectations may be below that level anyway.
But can a two-word outburst during a high-ranking politician’s talk be classified as free speech? A Spokane court case would suggest that it is.
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 “Warmonger.” McDonough didn’t just get a drop-dead look from the speaker, as Wilson got Wednesday night from Obama. 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 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. One could make a reasonable argument that the code of conduct for a congressman is higher than that for a college student. But the case lends some support for speaking out at a political speech.
On the Web
Readers’ comments about Wilson’s outbursts and the aftermath and a link to videos of the top 10 interruptions in presidential speeches can be found at spokesman.com/blogs/spincontrol.