It was the first time that the violent rage surging in town-hall meetings all summer blasted into the same room as the president.Violent rage? Think what you will about the forceful expression of outrage — I've often read it in Frank Rich columns — it's different from physical violence. And no one thinks Joe Wilson was about to do something physically violent.
Wilson’s televised shout was tantamount to yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater.No, shouting "Fire" in a crowded theater causes fearful running for the exits, and it's actually the right thing to do when there actually is a fire. That's why Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote:
The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.... The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.I wonder why Frank Rich wanted to evoke Free Speech case law when his aim in this column is to bemoan vigorous speech. I suppose he just meant that neither "You lie" in the House chamber or "Fire" in a crowded theater is good. Except that "fire" is good when there is a fire, which leaves Rich's analogy setting up the argument that shouting "You lie" during a presidential speech is desirable if the President really is lying. But that's absurd. We'd never get to the end of these already seemingly endless orations if that was the rule.
Back to Rich:
When [Wilson] later explained that his behavior was “spontaneous” rather than premeditated, that was even more disturbing. It’s not good for the country that a lawmaker can’t control his anger at Barack Obama. It gives permission to crazy people.Not every impolite outburst equals uncontrolled anger, and I don't remember Rich caring about all the angry statements that were aimed at George Bush. I remember him making them. He and lots of other brave dissenters loved calling Bush a liar. I don't remember back then hearing anybody propounding the theory that free speech needed to be tempered lest it give "permission to crazy people."