Yelling “fight like hell” in a crowded rally

If students are consistently held to incredibly strict standards of free speech, then why isn’t the president?

Bri Hatch

Since middle school history class, we’ve all known the cliche golden rule that dictates the line between free speech and unprotected, condemnable speech: don’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater. 

But apparently proclaiming “stop the steal” and “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore” in a crowded rally of angry people —  blocks away from the building where the election they have been manipulated to believe is not valid is being certified —  that’s all fine and good. 

Clearly, ex-President (emphasis on the “ex,” for now) Donald Trump never learned this middle school staple lesson. Or maybe he just learned from his first impeachment and acquittal, and his history of unchecked violent and offensive remarks, that the rules don’t apply to him.

Either way, one notable comparison is clear: the president’s speech is less regulated than a student’s. And honestly, when I say “president” I really only mean Trump — because no other president has ever been impeached for a second time for “inciting an insurrection.” But the horrifying implications of this unchecked power are looming. 

As a student, and a journalism one at that, this disparity was glaring. Even though the president has an international stage and unmatched influence, Trump’s acquittal showed he is able to speak more freely without repercussions than a public school student. 

In 1968, the Tinker v. Des Moines Supreme Court case outlined freedom of speech guidelines for students in public schools. The court ruled that students do not lose their rights to freedom of speech when they step onto school property — but, they could be punished if their words or expression would “materially and substantially interfere” with the operation of the school. 

Trump was not subject to the same standards. At a “Save America Rally” on Jan. 6, mere blocks away from the Capitol building, Trump told a crowd of supporters to “walk down to the Capitol” and to “fight like hell,” according to The New York Times

“We will never give up,” Trump said. “You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore, and that is what this is all about. And to use a favorite term that all of you people really came up with, we will stop the steal.” 

Directly after this incendiary speech, thousands of those in the crowd stormed the Capitol building in an act of domestic terrorism that caused more than $30 million worth of damage, according to NPR. Offices were destroyed, windows smashed, shots were fired in the chamber — and congress members were forced to evacuate. 

The pause on the certification of the presidential election this caused — not to mention the damage done to the building, the trauma faced by the members of Congress and the security workers, and the indelible stain the riot left on American psyche and society — “materially and substantially interfered” with the operation of the U.S. government. And it will continue to for a long time. 

Yet, Trump was acquitted on Feb. 13. His speech incited a violent riot against the U.S. government — but he can still run for re-election. His freedom of speech was protected. 

Debating the nuances of free speech is a whole different matter. But, the blatant disparity here is alarming and illuminating. If students are consistently held to incredibly strict standards of free speech, then why isn’t the president? 

We need to consider the implications of allowing presidential speech to go largely unchecked and unprosecuted. We should be holding the person who occupies the highest office to the highest standard — not the absolute lowest.