Even with the First Amendment guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression, it's possible to cross a line - and that's what comedian Kathy Griffin did with a photo of her holding a bloody, decapitated head representing President Donald Trump.
As the kerfuffle continues to simmer on social media, fans and foes of the president are squaring off. Outraged Trump supporters insist Griffin broke the law, and that the Secret Service should investigate her for "threatening" the president. And ironically, many of the folks making the loudest noise are simultaneously demanding a halt to the probe into possible Russian interference with the U.S. election process.
Griffin isn't guilty of breaking the law, but she is guilty of poor taste and stupidity. That won't get her locked up, but it will cost her some money. CNN cancelled an ongoing contract with Griffin that paired her with Anderson Cooper for New Year's Eve celebration coverage. Cooper, no Trump fan himself, called the photo "clearly disgusting and completely inappropriate." She also lost an endorsement and a casino gig. Her fiscal punishment prompted fans and Trump's worst detractors to rattle the censorship cage. But they're wrong, just like those in the other camp who are claiming she violated the law.
Federal law lists threats against the president, president-elect, vice president or vice president-elect as Class E felonies. To draw the charge, the individual has to "knowingly and willfully [make a] threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm" on any of those four. Experts say Griffin's grisly depiction would not constitute a threat in any court and is "protected speech." Americans can - and often do - wish harm would befall a president; the problem occurs when words are used to incite a deadly action.
The claim that Griffin's termination constitutes "censorship" stems from a common misunderstanding of what the word means. "Censorship" occurs when the government tries to stifle First Amendment rights. The companies paying Griffin for her celebrity status are private entities, and they had every right to kick her to the curb. And under the circumstances, they took the right action.
Others have played this reckless game. Enemies of President Obama posted images of his being lynched, with clear overtones of what once happened to African Americans at the hands of white-sheeted cowards. There were also doctored photos showing Obama bloodied and battered, shot in the head, or degraded in some other way. Even some local residents were broadcasting these photos and calling it "just a joke" when called on the carpet. These are some of the people screaming the loudest about what Griffin did. Maybe they now understand how it feels.
For many families who have been victimized by terrorists, the image of a decapitated head hit home in an unimaginably painful way. Everyone has seen the horrific photos of beheaded journalists, soldiers and innocent bystanders touted on the internet by ISIS and other evil cells. Even though Griffin did apologize later, vestiges of the incident will linger for a long time to come.
Perhaps that's what she is counting on. Those familiar with her brand of humor can't help but wonder if this was all part of a deliberate ploy for publicity. If so, she's getting it in spades - though perhaps not the way she intended.
Americans should respect the office of the presidency, even if they don't respect the president. Those who publicly circulated outrageous images of Obama were wrong then, and Griffin is wrong in doing it to Trump now. Fair comment and criticism is not, nor should it be, a license to plunge off the precipice.