Free speech for gun extremist, not for student?

Editors passionately defend the Freedom of Incendiary Speech of a right-wing extremist – but not a peep about a student arrested for a tweet.

The editorial board of the Northwest Arkansas Times today announced that “Free Speech Wins in GOP controversy”, referring to the brouhaha around Benton County Republican Chris Nogy who had made noises about shooting lawmakers who voted for laws that he disagrees with. Nogy wrote on the county GOP web site:

“The 2nd amendment means nothing unless those in power believe you would have no problem simply walking up and shooting them if they got too far out of line and stopped responding as representatives.”

While he personally thinks that “a gun is quicker and more merciful” than political and civic action, he regretfully concluded that “we can’t shoot them” [lawmakers]. He later issued a non-apology, stating that he “most likely won’t try to kill them [legislators] or harm their families”, and has since resigned from his committee post. The State Police had looked into the matter and concluded that he didn’t really mean to shoot anybody so his remarks weren’t actual threats and so no criminal charges were in order. The NWA Times editors agree:

“we’re glad to see free speech at work, just as the Constitution guarantees. Nogy got to express his ridiculous notion about a political party exterminating its traitors, while others fairly had the opportunity to speak out against an ill-conceived, poorly executed advocacy of political retribution. That’s exactly what’s supposed to happen. Nogy isn’t in danger of going to jail or being executed for speaking his mind.”

Fair enough. One has to wonder though why there wasn’t the slightest peep from any journalist, politician, or other advocate of Freedom of Speech when recently a UA student was arrested after a tweet that seems far less dangerous than Nogy’s figures of speech. On April 12, a University building was evacuated and student Carlos Martinez was arrested and charged with “terroristic threatening” after he had tweeted:

“UPDATE: Someone screams over the mezzanine and shoots all the forth year.”

This blogger has no idea what Martinez was trying to express in this message but it doesn’t appear to be a threat. At worst, it might have been intended to create a false alarm (as it did). Authorities nowadays understandably take any hint of danger in connection with schools seriously. But students still have First Amendment rights or have they? In the Nogy case, the police investigated whether there had been an intent to threaten and concluded there was none. In the Martinez case, the police arrested and the prosecutor charged without asking any questions.

None of the media outlets reporting on the incident (here, here, here and here) offered any comment on possible Free Speech implications of a hefty criminal charge based solely on a twitter message. No passionate editorials were written. There was also no hint that any of the journalists attempted to contact Martinez. Indeed all reporting appears to have consisted in merely copying the police press release.

Apparently, when it comes to exercising Free Speech, it helps to be a firebrand political extremist rather than an unknown – and probably harmless – student.