This is a nonpartisan blog. I have been critical of President Obama’s views of constitutional law and executive power. I thought it especially damaging to the integrity and independence of the Supreme Court when Obama chastised the Court and angered the public with an oversimplified depiction of Citizens United. But, in this post, I offer nothing but respect to President Obama for accomplishing something fundamental to the survival of our constitutional democracy.
Obama models the importance of free speech values. Both the substance and the style of his communications to the nation exemplify many of the values that give meaning and legitimacy to our First Amendment freedoms.
Obama personifies the importance of nuanced exchanges, exalts rational, civil discourse, and respects the intelligence and dignity of all Americans. Many of the theories animating First Amendment jurisprudence, although it protects a far greater array of speech, rely on the fact that allowing us all to speak and hear each other’s views will lead to more informed discourse, legitimize our democracy, and promote the autonomy of the individual.
President Obama never shies away from tackling controversial subjects in a sophisticated, nuanced way. He is an excellent communicator, and so he is able to express far more than political talking points. One of my favorite examples of this is Obama’s threading the needle on terrorism. His speeches convince that he will be tough on ISIL while addressing why the use of the term “radical Islamic terrorism” is unnecessary and divisive. His remarks about the Black Lives Matter movement are similarly measured, and respectful of many points of view, yet bold and unflinching. He wanted to be the President that united the nation, and unfortunately, his speeches were often attacked by both sides. But I believe his speeches account for multiple perspectives while still communicating a clear message.
Obama confronts hecklers, instead of inspiring violence against them. Just yesterday, President Obama redirected the focus of a crowd of Hillary supporters booing a man holding a Trump sign. Standing up for principle over partisanship, he told the crowd that we live in a country that respects the First Amendment, veterans, and our elders. And, to really make a statement, “don’t boo, vote.”
Here here, President Obama. You have been one of the classiest- if not the classiest- Presidents we’ve ever had.
Note: It looks to me like the man at the rally was escorted out. If he was shouting, that’s still consistent with a free speech regime (although it’s not totally in the spirit of what Obama was saying) – shouting down a speaker assigned to an event and disrupting that event is not protected speech, but is in fact a silencing tactic. If he was simply holding a sign, that’s antithetical to free speech values. We don’t allow others reacting disruptively to controversial speech to compromise that speech; that’s called the heckler’s veto. However, perhaps the man simply wanted an escort out.