“There will be a riot,” Donald Trump said recently on the prospect of a contested Republican convention in which he might be denied the nomination.
Recent reports also have shown rallies for Trump where supporters have sucker-punched protesters, amid calls by Trump to “Get ’em outta’ here!”
Those throwing the physical punches in Fayetteville and Arizona have been charged, while Trump has suggested he might pay the legal fees for the alleged aggressor in Fayetteville.
But what about the verbal punches thrown by Trump? To what extent is he accountable and/or responsible for his fiery, confrontational and controversial speech as a public figure and a candidate?
Reports also indicate the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office considered charging Trump with “inciting to riot” in Fayetteville, but the incident fell short of meeting the standard for the statute.
The late Jack Adams, former dean of the UNC School of Media and Journalism, said years ago in his Press Law and Ethics class, “With free speech comes responsibility.”
Among the many considerations taught by Adams for fair comment, libel, slander, invasion of privacy and copyright, he said news organizations could be held accountable for “inciting to riot” as well.
So, even though Trump also has offered the hollow threat to curtail the freedoms of the news media, if the media has to be held accountable, what makes Trump any different?
Brooks Fuller, who now teaches Media Law and Ethics at the UNC School of Media and Journalism, said there are two separate issues: one of political decorum and the other of law.
“The law is especially speaker protective,” Fuller said. “The Supreme Court has ruled that speech must be directed toward inciting a riot and likely to cause it.”
“Trump rides the line,” Fuller continued. “The Supreme Court doctrine insulates much of what Trump says that might be construed as violence because of the requirements that the harm must be imminent as well as likely.”
The Supreme Court has ruled that speech must be directed toward inciting a riot and likely to cause it.
Fuller also said, “Courts and law enforcement have to show that the speaker exercises some amount of control over the assailants in order to hold the speaker liable. That’s really challenging. If we held such speakers liable under a more liberal construction of the incitement doctrine, it might chill speech or unfairly punish political rhetoric.”
“One will find ample speech protection and tradition in different periods,” Fuller added.
For example, Fuller said conventional history suggests that concerns about extremism undermined former Sen. Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964, particularly after his speech at the Republican National Convention.
When it comes to Trump’s stance on Muslims and immigrants, one may be reminded of the protests surrounding the segregationist position of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, also in the 1960s. Before going into politics, North Carolina’s former Republican Sen. Jesse Helms also voiced a segregationist stance on WRAL-TV’s “Viewpoint” during the 1950s.
As for Trump’s version of extreme populism, Fuller said: “I can’t remember a candidate who spent so little and got such a following. His inflammatory rhetoric in debates has appeared to attract followers on social media and with Google searches.”
From conversations with others here and there, many people seem to like Trump because of the way he “speaks his mind.”
Trump also is recently on record as saying he is “opposed to violence.”
In general, Fuller said Trump’s confrontational style is an ethical matter for the electorate to decide, and not a legal issue.
So, even though others may find Trump’s speech offensive, insensitive and politically incorrect, it appears to be protected under law as part of the American political process.