Regarding the first rule and the First Amendment

Try not to be an asshole.

That’s always the first rule. That’s Rule No. 1. No matter what the topic, no matter how specific or how general, Rule No. 1 is always Rule No. 1.

This Austin, Texas, homeowner is, and should be, protected by the First Amendment. But no force on earth can protect him from the consequences of violating Rule No. 1.

It comes first not because it’s the most important, necessarily, but because unless we hear and heed Rule No. 1, we’ll probably never find out what any of the other rules are. No one will want to talk to us long enough to tell us.

Rule No. 1 is not, cannot and should not be legally enforceable. It should always be a rule, but it should never be a law. No state should ever attempt to compel or coerce us to obey Rule No. 1.

If we break this rule, then, we should never be imprisoned or fined. There should never be legal consequences for violating Rule No. 1. But there will always be consequences — consequences that are far more immediate and, in some ways, even worse than any legal sanction. The price we will pay if we break Rule No. 1 is that we will become assholes.

That’s a fitting punishment. Probably some kind of tautology, actually. But it’s also a brutally harsh and inescapable punishment. Don’t let this happen to you. Rule No. 1 is important.

Now, there seems to be some confusion about the relationship between the first rule and the First Amendment. Let’s address that.

The First Amendment is a sacred thing. That’s the part of the U.S. Constitution that acknowledges that we humans have the undeniable right to freedom of speech and to freedom of conscience and that no American laws may ever pretend otherwise.

These are vital rights and vital freedoms. If the laws of any country do not recognize and enshrine such freedoms, then that country doesn’t really have either freedom or law. People all over the world have marched and fought and died to assert and defend these freedoms, and they were right to do so.

And if those freedoms are to mean anything — if they are to be real — then they must also mean that we are free to break Rule No. 1. Freedom of speech and freedom of conscience mean that we all have, and deserve, and are endowed by our Creator with the inalienable and self-evident right to be assholes. No government, no king, no state, and no just law can ever deny us that right.

But while we are and must be free to violate Rule No. 1, this freedom, alas, does not protect us from the automatic and inexorable penalty that the rule itself imposes on all who freely violate it. We are free to be assholes. But we can never be free to do so without thereby making ourselves assholes.

The First Amendment articulates sacred principles on which we should never compromise. Yet the First Amendment leaves the first rule unchanged. Try not to be an asshole.

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  • The_L1985

     ” the original Freedom papers or what they were called”

    The Articles of Confederation? Because the Declaration of Independence was just a declaration of war and a list of grievances.

  • Münchner Kindl

     Yes, that seems to be the proper name
    As the later constitution was based on it with improving them.

  • B

     “Back in Austin, chair lyncher Bud Johnson is (predictably) saying, “it
    was never intended to be racist.” Riiiight. Of course not. Once again
    it’s somehow a worse offense to call someone racist than to actual be

    I don’t for a moment believe that this wasn’t intended to be racist. 

    However, even if it really HADN’T been intended to be racist… it would be less offensive, yes, but it would still be hanging someone in effigy, which is still (IMO) in very poor taste.

  • inhumandecency

    I agree that wildly racist things can still be funny. To some extent the structure of humor is separate from its content. In the related case of racial stereotypes, you can also have stock characters who are inherently funny, but who are horribly offensive when applied to whole groups of real live people. I think it’s possible to argue that in countries with a recent or ongoing tradition of racial discrimination, the negative side of the reaction to racist humor should be stronger, even if the positive side is still there (kind of like the way you might be disgusted by eating food that was made by slaves, even if it’s absolutely delicious). 

  • Nim Sudo

    No, the first rule is always Rule 0: Don’t do anything that requires the writing of a new rule.


    I don’t for a moment believe that this wasn’t intended to be racist.  

    (shrug) I’m willing to believe it, but I don’t think it matters.

    Which gets at an important distinction between thinking about racism as a systemic problem, and thinking about it as an individual attribute.

    I mean… OK. Suppose I assume that Mr. Johnson simply wished to express his opposition to the current President, and in thinking about how to do that it occurred to him that it would be clever to take an empty chair (which the RNC had established as a symbol of the President) and hang it from a tree (which American history had established as a symbol of opposition) and that _at no time during this process_ did he ever even formulate an explicit thought involving the President’s skin color or ethnic heritage. (I find that last part unlikely, and it’s a stronger claim than the one Mr. Johnson makes, but I’m willing to accept it for the sake of making the distinction clearer.)

    I would agree, supposing all that were true, that the act wasn’t intended to be racist.

    None of that would preclude any of the following:
    – Mr. Johnson holds racist beliefs
    – That President Obama’s skin color played a significant role in the intensity of Mr.Johnson’s opposition to President Obama (as opposed to, say, a white Democrat with the same political positions).
    – That President Obama’s skin color played a significant role in the availability to Mr. Johnson’s mind of the symbol of lynching as a symbol of opposition (as opposed to, say, burning in effigy).
    – The act of lynching the chair reinforced racist beliefs in Mr.Johnson
    – The image of a chair being lynched reinforced racist beliefs in observers

    If I’m _actually opposed to racism_, all of those things matter. 
    Indeed, they matter a lot more than whether Mr.Johnson intended this act as racist.
    That’s kind of what it means for racism to be a systemic problem.

    When Americans talk about someone “being racist” we often mean, not just that they _contribute_ to systemic racism, but that they endorse explicitly racist ideas. When we talk about an act “being racist” we often mean, not just that it contributes to systemic racism, but that it was intended to express explicitly racist ideas. So when someone describes a person or an act as racist, we sometimes reject that judgment on the grounds that it wasn’t meant to publicly endorse or express explicitly racist ideas, and utterly lose sight of the systemic part.

    This is a pity, because systemic racism causes a lot of harm.

    I am a pale-skinned (though not necessarily “white”) man raised and
    living in predominantly white communities. I cannot remember the last
    thing I did that was intended to be racist, but I have no doubt that I
    contribute to systemic racism all the time.

    All I know how to do
    about it is work towards increasing my awareness of the fact and
    countering the aspects of it I become aware of.

  • How silly. The man hung a chair from a tree. And you want to charge him with a hate crime? Breathe. Several times.

  • EllieMurasaki

    How silly. The man burned some wood. And you want to charge him with a hate crime? Breathe. Several times. Doesn’t matter that the wood was cross-shaped and was burned in a black family’s yard, any more than it matters that we have very recently associated an empty chair with President Obama and many of our people remember when other people hung men of the President’s skin tone and the authorities either didn’t give a fuck or were in on it.


    I’m kind of surprised the Secret Service isn’t investigating this as a threat against the President.

    I would be unsurprised if the President asked the Secret Service to not investigate unless there was strong evidence of actual conspiracy.  Party because this seems like an era of unprecedented demonetization toward a sitting president and thus there will be a lot of pointless demonstration, and partly because any attempt at using governmental powers to protect himself would be jumped on by his political opposition as an example of executive overreach.  His strategy seems to be to starve his political opponents of fodder to use against him, which in turn leads to them just making shit up. 

  • In general, if you bump up against the Constitution, it means you made a wrong turn.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Yes. This is why the Preamble, in setting out the Constitution’s purposes, includes “promote the general welfare”.

  • Boidster

    I sympathize with folks who call for this to be prosecuted as a hate crime, though I disagree with them. Burning a wooden object in someone else’s yard, for example,  is a crime on its face, regardless of the race of the burner or the yard-owner (trespass, arson, vandalism, and so on…) Relatively recently, we as a society have decided that adding racial elements to such crimes – i.e. not just burning a pile of scrap lumber, but burning a cross instead, and doing so on a black person’s lawn – change a normal crime into a “hate crime.” Fair enough; I think there are reasonable arguments to be made both for and against that particular idea, but set that aside.

    This asshole hung a chair in effigy, with the obvious intent of showcasing his animosity towards the President, and invoking a powerful negative metaphor to do so. Capital-A asshole, assuredly. But a crime? Hanging a chair from his own tree? I’m not so sure about that, but I don’t mean to start an argument. This actually leads into the point about our (Americans’) “worship” of the Constitution and the First Amendment.

    Except in very limited situations (“fire” in a crowded theater is the popular example, but there are a few others, and of course libel) the question of what is legal to say and what is not legal to say is not really a question. Which means there isn’t much of a slippery slope to travel down towards state-sponsored suppression of speech. The Supreme Court is a high bar to clear, even lopsided as it is right now.

    So there’s this reasonable argument we could have about whether hanging this chair constitutes a crime. I think the 1st Amendment pretty much says it is not a crime, hate or otherwise. But if we were in a country without that right enshrined in our foundational document, it might not be too difficult to put this sort of speech into the class of “things you are not legally allowed to say.” What’s next? If he had hung a lectern such as the one Mr. Eastwood was standing at, would that be a crime? So it’s only chairs then? What about 3-legged stools? No? What about a watermelon? Too generic, or because of its popular (but unsourced? I have no idea where this comes from) association with blacks would a hanging watermelon be a crime? What about one of those square watermelons you see in Japan? Cantaloupe?

    Ok, enough silliness. [Insert GrahamChapmanAsTheColonel.jpg] It’s true that many countries have managed just fine with a softer implementation of free speech. What happens in those countries if the whacko wing of whatever political party takes over Parliament? What stops them from outlawing all sorts of speech they don’t like? That’s a serious question – maybe the “softer implementation” really isn’t so soft.

    From this American’s POV, the high hurdle of Supreme Court approval is a nice bulwark against the Tea Party deciding that saying “this Texas dude is a Grade-A asshole” is now a crime of libel or whatever. We had these “Free Speech Zones” during the W administration – just that gave me the willies. Very 1984. If all it took was congressional action to outlaw certain types of speech – with no Constitutional challenge possible – I’d probably have willies all the time.

    Sorry for the ramble.

  • But if we were in a country without that right enshrined in our foundational document,

    You mean like how there has been effective de facto suppression of dissent by means of the USA PATRIOT Act?

    You mean like that?

    Bill of Rights sure didn’t seem to stop THAT one, did it?

    Even you yourself admit it’s already been done – free speech zones and whatnot.

  • Ellie- I was reading an older piece of economic writing and the author used “promote the general welfare” in no relation to the Constitution. We’ve debated about it’s meaning but it seemeed to mean not very much.  it was like ” He can choose to be a baker and bake bread or a politician and go out and promote the general welfare” .

  • I’m kind of surprised the Secret Service isn’t investigating this as a threat against the President.

    The Secret Service said it was looking into the empty chair incidents. “The Secret Service is aware of this and will conduct appropriate followup,” spokesman Brian Leary told NBC News.

    Frankly, I wouldn’t be kind of surprised if they weren’t investigating; I would be shocked.  It doesn’t matter who the sitting president is or how silly the speech or action seems to be–if anybody says or does anything that seems like it might potentially be even vaguely threatening to the president of the United States of America, the Secret service will investigate.  If the person being investigated is really just a harmless crank making a joke, the investigators will warn the harmless crank not to make stupid jokes about any U.S. presidents in the future.  But the Secret Service will investigate even the silliest comments, because that’s what they do, and because absolutely nobody in the Secret Service wants to be the guy who ignored an actual threat to the President.

  • PJ Evans

    Someone from that area of Austin posted a ddiary about this on Wednesday. It included this:

    We’re a state that has a horrific history of hate crimes, and given
    the new context of the “empty chair” created by the Republican Party
    during their own convention gives this image of a chair hanging from a
    tree a decidedly sinister, and yes, racist, meaning.

    I called the homeowner to ask about his display, citing my concerns as a fellow Austinite. He replied, and I quote, “I
    don’t really give a damn whether it disturbs you or not. You can take
    [your concerns] and go straight to hell and take Obama with you. I don’t
    give a shit. If you don’t like it, don’t come down my street.”

  • PJ Evans

     I understand that this particular homeowner did a previous yard ‘decoration’ that involved watermelon and fried chicken. It may be legal, but it’s definitely in bad taste and racist.

  • Matri

    Welfare. You keep using that word.

    It does not mean what you want it to mean.

  • Matri

    There was, for a while a Republican push for a Constitutional Amendment
    that would get rid of the pointless and discriminatory requirement that a
    president be born in the US, so that Arnie could run. And that got
    somehow sidelined in all the noise about where Obama was born…</blockquote<

    It will definitely get even better. So much so that I'm willing to billions of dollars I do not have that the moment this is brought up in public, every republican will be calling it a liberal lie started by the Democrats.

    Or liberals.

    Or Satanic atheist muslims.

    Or the ones who started the push were secretly leftist plants.

    And all of the above.

  • Matri

    Gah. Ate the rest of my reply.

    It will definitely get better than this.

    When this gets brought up in public, just listen as every single republican will call it a lie started by Democrats.

    Or liberals.

    Or even those “Satanic atheist muslims”.

    Or that the ones who started the push were secretly leftist plants.

    And all of the above.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Yes, because absolutely nobody needs or wants bread and therefore baking bread contributes absolutely nothing to the general welfare.

    I don’t think you expressed your point very well, whatever the hell it was.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I think Fred is making an argument that a decent country has laws protecting some variety of free speech. It doesn’t have to protect all speech, or all speech in all circumstances – even the first amendment doesn’t do that, it does have limits – but . . .

    That’s not what he said. He said that a country without an equivalent to your first amendment in its Constitution is not free and does not really operate under the rule of law.

    Your first amendment refers to “abridging the freedom of speech”. A law that excludes a certain type of speech or speech under certain circumstances sounds like an abridgement to the freedom of speech to me.

    But what do I know about freedom, law and constitutions? My country’s Constitution doesn’t explicitly provide freedom of speech, but it does give the Commonwealth explicit power to legislate for disability pensions, age pensions, maternity allowances, widows’ pensions, child endowment, unemployment, pharmaceutical, sickness and hospital benefits, medical and dental services, benefits to students and family allowances. In other words, to look after its citizens. So I live in a bullshit tinpot dictatorship.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart


  • fraser

     Also the fact that Ah-nuld didn’t exactly astonish anyone with the brilliance of his governing.

  • fraser

    Yes, that was an issue. Several people pointed out that if the government only had specifically enumerated powers, there’d be no reason to guarantee habeas corpus in the body of the document.
    Pauline Maier’s Ratification is a fascinating look at some of the issues people freaked out about at the time: Didn’t the Vice President running the Senate ruin the separation and balance of powers? What if Congress used its power to set the time and place of elections to gerrymander (by choosing time and place where the Wrong People would be least likely to vote)? Should the federal government have the power to tax? A standing army? And the whole no-religious tests thing–my god, we could end up with Catholics taking us over!

  •  I think a lot of people were astonished that he managed to be something at least vaguely resembling a leader who was not a complete and total absolute castastrofuck.

  • erikagillian

    The Secret Service also investigated Pastor Koran-Burner for, I think, burning Obama in effigy.  They investigate threats to the president.  And in this country at this time, I think we all understand that he is in danger, has been since he was elected.  I am continually surprised he’s still alive.   Happy, but surprised.

  • Fred, a white cisman does not get to lecture people about why this fuck’s right to bully them is more important than their right to feel safe and not have to go on anxiety meds or avoid certain streets in their own neighbourhood.

    The First Amendment is not sacred. If you are construing it such that it protects hate speech, either you’re wrong or it is. Stop being sanctimonious and ask the people that this affects how they feel about it.

  • EllieMurasaki

    The KKK has the right to say whatever the fuck they please, and I will defend their right to say whatever the fuck they please even though the only thing they’ve ever said that I haven’t found abhorrent is “we’d like to adopt this highway”. They do not have the right to be heard when they speak, nor (and this is the grounds on which I would throw the book at the homeowner who lynched the chair) to make anyone feel unsafe by what they say, and I really wish they would shut the fuck up entirely, but they do have the right to speak. I, being an atheist, wouldn’t call that right ‘sacred’, but I would call it ‘inviolable’.

    Because if we decide that hate speech is unprotected, who gets to define ‘hate speech’? And I have the unpleasant feeling that if the answer is ‘the current US Congress’ or ‘the current US Supreme Court’ or even ‘the current US population’, I’d end up on the pointy end of hate speech laws every time I say I’m an atheist.