How The Left Is Changing the Meaning of Words to Reduce Freedom -- The Phrase "Incite Violence"

A surprising number of folks on the Left of late seem to be advocating for restrictions on free speech -- Howard Dean is among the latest.  One of the arguments they use is that, they say, it is illegal in one's speech to "incite violence".  Folks like Glenn Reynolds and Eugene Volokh have responded with legal analyses of this statement, but I want to point out something slightly different -- that in the way the Left is using this phrase, the meaning has been shifted in very dangerous ways.

First, some basic legal background, and on First Amendment issues I find it is always safe to run to Eugene Volokh for help:

To be sure, there are some kinds of speech that are unprotected by the First Amendment. But those narrow exceptions have nothing to do with “hate speech” in any conventionally used sense of the term. For instance, there is an exception for “fighting words” — face-to-face personal insults addressed to a specific person, of the sort that are likely to start an immediate fight. ....

The same is true of the other narrow exceptions, such as for true threats of illegal conduct or incitement intended to and likely to produce imminent illegal conduct (i.e., illegal conduct in the next few hours or maybe days, as opposed to some illegal conduct some time in the future). Indeed, threatening to kill someone because he’s black (or white), or intentionally inciting someone to a likely and immediate attack on someone because he’s Muslim (or Christian or Jewish), can be made a crime. But this isn’t because it’s “hate speech”; it’s because it’s illegal to make true threats and incite imminent crimes against anyone and for any reason, for instance because they are police officers or capitalists or just someone who is sleeping with the speaker’s ex-girlfriend.

So it is illegal to "incite violence" though this exception to free speech is typically very narrow.  As I understand it, a KKK speaker who shouts from the podium, "look, a black guy just walked in, everybody go beat him up" would probably be guilty of inciting violence if the crowd immediately beat the guy up.  A BLM speaker who shouted as part of his speech that the crowd needed to fight back against police oppression would likely not be guilty of inciting violence if, some months later, one of the audience members assaulted a police officer.

But what all of this has in common is speakers telling their supporters to go out and commit violence against some other person or group.  The violence incited is by the speakers supporters and is specifically urged on by the speaker.  But this is not how the Left is using the term "incite violence".  The Left is using this term to refer to violence by opponents of the speaker attempting to prevent the speaker from being heard.  For example,  when folks argue that Ann Coulter cannot speak at Berkeley because she will "incite violence", they don't mean that she is expected to stand up and urge her supporters to go do violence against others -- they mean that they expect her opponents to be violent.

This is a horrible newspeak redefinition of a term.  It is implying that a speaker is responsible for the violence by those who oppose her.  By this definition, the socialists of 1932 Germany were guilty of "inciting violence" whenever  Nazi brownshirts tried to brutally shut down socialist meetings and speeches.

I am not sure why the Left is so good at this - perhaps because most of the media is sympathetic to the Left and is willing to let them define the terms of the debate.  The Left has successfully performed a similar bit of verbal judo with the claim that Russians "hacked" the last election.  By calling leaks of Democratic private correspondence "hacking the election", they have successfully left the impression among many that the Russians actually manipulated vote totals, something for which there is zero evidence and really no credible story of how it might have been done.


  1. Mercury:

    "By calling leaks of Democratic private correspondence "hacking the election", they have successfully left the impression among many that the Russians actually manipulated vote totals, something for which there is zero evidence and really no credible story of how it might have been done."
    It's worse than that.
    Even if the Russians did hack into Dem email servers specifically to aid Trump the "bombshell" here was a collection of HRC and DNC emails wherein they incriminated themselves and revealed various illegal and unethical dealings/operations. Shouldn't such sunlight be a net benefit for "Our Democracy" as pertains to the presidential election?
    Also, let's say the Russians hacked Trump's servers and uncovered evidence that Trump was operating an internet kiddie-porn ring behind some front business.....which subsequently caused Trump to lose the election. Do you think the NYT headline the next day would be A) "RUSSIANS HACK US ELECTION!!" or B) TRUMP THE KIDDIE PORN KING!! ????

  2. J_W_W:

    Well, I'm convinced the left are now soulless traitors to the nation.

    They have made it clear they do not consider me their fellow countryman, and I'm more than willing to reciprocate.

    They think this civil war they are brewing will go well for them. They will be mistaken.

  3. craftman:

    "As I understand it, a KKK speaker who shouts from the podium, "look, a black guy just walked in, everybody go beat him up" would probably be guilty of inciting violence if the crowd immediately beat the guy up."

    So something I genuinely don't understand...if the KKK guy above says this, and nobody gets beat up, can the speaker still be charged with a crime even though nothing happened? Are the words themselves criminal and what would this guy be charged with if no harm was done to anyone? Serious replies please, I don't need 5 armchair lawyers telling me what they think would happen.

  4. james:

    Incitement to violence has been an offence in the UK for centuries.
    Note that this is not "incitement to be violent to me".
    UK has now added a bunch of stupid laws about hate crime when the original law was well adapted to hate preachers, etc.

  5. ErikTheRed:

    Running to Eugene Volokh for analysis is never a bad idea. Running to Ken White at Popehat is a lot more fun.

  6. ErikTheRed:

    Violence is never a good means to achieve political ends. That being said, it amazes me that so many progressives want to engage in literal warfare with conservatives who, lets face it, are much better armed than any group other than the libertarians (who think Republican positions are far too strict on gun control).

  7. Q46:

    "I am not sure why the Left is so good at this...


    'Accuse others of what you do.' - Karl Marx

  8. Q46:

    Incitement to commit a crime (usually violence) is contrary to Common Law of England and has been that way for a long time.

    The crime of incitement is still committed even if not acted on.

    I believe there are actually two possibilities: incitement to commit violence (a call to be violent without a violent act ever taking place); inciting violence (actually causing a violent act.)

    However the 'mens rea' of the offence has to be evident for a crime to be committed, that is it must be demonstrable that the speaker intends/caused others to act on his/her words.

    This is where 'hate speech' comes in, because it is often difficult to show mens rea particularly where no incitement was intended and someone was merely expressing a particular view, so specific identified words, often in every day use, irrelevant of context are now used to imply mens rea. In this way political opposition can be silenced and speech censored.

    It also in Court has to be shown that a target audience was likely to be incited to commit a crime.

    Preventing people from speaking because they 'might' incite others to crime, establishes a dangerous principle. Normally for there to be a crime there has to be an act. Restricting people because they 'might' commit a crime with no evidence they were planning it or likely to commit one used to be unlawful.

    Alas it is no longer so, and the Left is not alone guilty. Denying people's right to travel on an aircraft because they 'might' endanger the aircraft just because of their Country of origin or name is now legitimised, but is not more acceptable than denying people's right to speak because they 'might' incite violence because of their views or name.

    What the Left is doing is wrong, but the Right is equally guilty.

    The primary aim of legislatures is to protect the individual from the State or other sections of society so as to uphold the principle of rule of law, equity before the law: no longer, now they have become legislative whores who sell to the highest bidder, protecting the State or whatever loudmouth group with deep pockets, against the individual.

    It is not a Left or Right issue, it is a systemic failure.

  9. CC:

    Claiming speakers incited violence is classic blaming the victim. If you say anything they don't like, they call it violence and oppression and therefore you incited them to smash windows. yes, very dangerous.

  10. A Scot:

    I have noticed that "incitement to violence" now means "I plan to punch you in the face if you open your mouth".

  11. CC:

    Please show me where the Right is rioting.

  12. A Scot:

    The Left, by its very nature, is ahistorical. Furthermore, my observation is that the far-Left cannot imagine having power and not using it, and so they believe they when we don't fight back it is because we can't.

  13. Peabody:

    I think "perhaps because most of the media is sympathetic to the Left and is willing to let them define the terms of the debate" is likely the most accurate. The average American takes just a cursory glance at current events and so rely on the boiled down news soundbites and headlines. There is no individual analysis or thoughtful criticism. This does happen on the right, such as with certain viewers of folks like Glen Beck or Alex Jones. However, that is a much smaller audience and it is much more socially acceptable to question the accuracy of their opinions. Average Americans are much less critical of say, Brian Williams, and the "verbal judo" is much more subtle than Hillary Clinton has child prostitutes chained up at a pizza restaurant stories.

  14. Peabody:

    Yes, I'd take the bikers, oil-field roughnecks, and farmers over the hipsters in skinny jeans.

  15. Heresiarch:

    Trying to control language is the chief and most frequently used item in the Left's toolbox. Control language, and you control "rationality" simply by working backwards from your favored end result and arranging definitions to make that conclusion "rational". Control language, and you can demonize anyone you choose, and use the threat of demonization as a whip to make them fall in line.

    Controlling language is, in fact, the rot of rationality.

  16. joe:

    In the mean time, there is substantial evidence that the Russians bought Hillary & Bill while she was the Sec of State - ie the uranium deal.

  17. Zev Sero:

    Um, no. The "uranium deal" story is fake from beginning to end. There are several versions circulating, so I don't know which version you have in mind, but they're all completely false.

    Here's the plain boring truth: A Russian company bought a 51% interest in a Canadian company which owns, among other things, uranium mines in the USA. Under US law, they needed President Obama's permission for this, or else they'd have to sell off the US mines; Clinton had no say in the matter.

    However, to help him make such decisions, the president is advised by a nine-member committee; it recommends a yes or no, but he's free to ignore it. The State Department has *one vote* on that committee. Not, note carefully, the Secretary of State herself, but the State Department.

    Thus, supposing someone *had* paid Clinton to help get this permission, the only help she could have given would be to instruct the State Dept representative on the advisory committee to vote for a "yes" recommendation to the president. He'd presumably want some sort of explanation for this unusual instruction, so she'd have to come up with some reason other than "because I've been paid". Then, assuming he obeyed the instruction, the nefarious person would have had to buy four more votes on this committee, and then hope the president accepted its advice. Wouldn't it be much simpler to simply bribe the president directly? Or to bribe the actual committee members themselves?

    In fact, the State Dept representative on the committee has said on the record that in his entire time on the committee Clinton never spoke to him about it at all. For all we know she might not even have been aware of the committee, or that he was on it.

    In any case, the only significant donations to the Clinton Foundation, from anyone involved in this deal, while they were seeking permission, was $250K from the Canadian chairman of the company that was being bought. He was a regular donor, and this $250K was actually less than he gave in other years before and after, so there's no reason to suppose any connection between the donation and the deal. Nobody else, either on the Canadian or the Russian side, gave the Foundation anything.

  18. Zev Sero:

    The speaker can be guilty of incitement even if nobody acts on it, so long as the speech was both "directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action,” and “likely to incite or produce such action.” However the fact that it didn't actually have that effect would tend to indicate that it wasn't likely to; the prosecution would have to explain why it didn't.