Lifestyle

Do Elected Officials Have a Right to Free [Offensive] Speech?

Throughout history there have been hundreds upon thousands of elected officials who have said a comment, stated an opinion, or acted in a way that made society cringe. (I’m looking at you Mayor Rob Ford, Former President Clinton, and “calves like cantaloupes” Iowa Representative Steve King.)

In recent history, these elected official’s comments and actions have made national news with help from political satire shows like the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. Thus, publicly shaming the official for his or her behavior, and in some instances aiding in their removal or resignation from office (i.e. Arizona State Senate President Russell Pearce, San Diego Mayor Bob Filner).

However, in all of the previously mentioned cases, the elected official at fault has acted under their own names and titles, eliciting direct disgrace to their office. So what happens when an elected official uses the mask of online anonymity to broadcast his offensive and very unprofessional opinions? Does the shame and embarrassment still apply? Where does that official’s duty as a leader to those who elected him end and his personal thoughts and opinions as a free citizen and Internet user begin?

We’ll have to look to the state of Arizona to clear up some of those questions, where it was recently discovered that the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, John Huppenthal, has been acting as the number one troll on several of Arizona’s political blog sites since 2010.

Posting under names like ‘Falcon9’ and ‘Thucydides’, Huppenthal spent years writing comments on blog posts defending his actions (in third person) as a public servant and criticizing others. For instance, in one post he referred to those who receive financial assistance through federally funded programs as “lazy pigs”, in another he called for all Spanish-language media to be eliminated in the United States, and in another referred to the work of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger as being similar to the actions of the Nazis.

For years political bloggers in the state were wary of ‘Falcon9’ and “Thucydides’ true identity, especially after a few of the posts revealed details about Huppenthal’s personal life that no one but Huppenthal himself would know. However, it took until a blogger discovered that a few of the posts were coming from an IP address at the Arizona Department of Education, for Superintendent Huppenthal to finally be revealed as the mysterious troll.

The local media ran wild with this revelation and Huppenthal had no choice but to admit his identity, and much like the elected officials who have been in similar situations before him, he initially apologized to anyone he offended and said “I just shouldn’t have done it”. Then, a few days later apologized again at a press conference where he renounced all of his comments and broke down in tears and left the room.

Understandably, the entire state has been rife with conversation on whether Huppenthal should resign, be removed from office, or allowed to remain the chief officer of Arizona’s Public Schools and let the voters in the upcoming election decide. While Huppenthal remains steady in his decision not to resign, resting on the notion that his Internet comments are protected under the first amendment.

As a blogger and frequent Internet user myself, I have great respect for this country’s freedom of speech and the freedom the world wide web provides us to voice that speech.  However, when it comes to a public official: a person who was elected by voters, who is looked up to by children, and who took an oath of office with the understanding that he or she must be as transparent as possible, it seems reprehensible to assume that official’s actions and words, whether they be masked by technology or not, carry no weight or have no consequence on his or her position as a leader.

The jury’s still out on Huppenthal’s fate, but if he’s learned anything from ‘Carlos Danger’ (New York Congressman Anthony Weiner’s online pseudonym) he should know that his choices and ‘free speech’ will haunt him forever.

 

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