The Bill of Rights and the Tragedy of the Arizona Shooting

Summary

On Saturday, January 8, 2011, Jared Loughner allegedly killed six people and critically wounded many others in Tucson, Arizona, in what is believed to have been an assassination attempt on U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. The victims of the massacre included a federal court judge and a nine year old girl. Reactions to events have potential implications for many of the protections in the United States Bill of Rights. This eLesson explores the events in Arizona as they relate to freedom of speech, assembly, and press, the right to keep and bear arms, criminal procedure, and due process.

Student Handout (PDF)

First Amendment Freedom of Speech and Assembly Resources

Discussion Questions

1.  Why did the Arizona legislature take emergency action to ban protests at funerals?

2.  Do you believe the law violates freedom of speech and assembly? Why or why not?

3.  The Supreme Court heard arguments in the First Amendment case involving the group calling themselves the Westboro Baptist Church and a decision is expected in the coming months. How should the Court rule, and why?

First Amendment Freedom of Speech and Press Resources

Discussion Questions

1. Should the First Amendment protect metaphors or other phrases that conjure up martial (war-like) or other violent images in public discourse?

2. Should the First Amendment protect actual threats of violence?

3. Based on your answers above, explain why the First Amendment should or should not protect the following examples of speech by or about public figures:

  • Images of target on a map of legislative districts
  • Effigies of lawmakers (such as a figure representing the President or a candidate hung by a noose)
  • “Don’t retreat, reload”
  • “If they bring a knife to a fight, we bring a gun.”
  • “We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answer, so I know whose &%^ to kick.”
  • “If this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking towards those Second Amendment remedies.”
  • “Instead of running for governor of Florida, they ought to have him and shoot him. Put him against the wall and shoot him.”

5.  If citizens believe political discourse needs more civility, what other means do citizens have to promote that exist other than criminalization of objectionable speech?

6.  Many journalists and the Sheriff of Pima County, AZ., have blamed the shooting on objectionable language and symbols from certain political officials and commentators. There is currently no evidence that the shooter was motivated by such rhetoric or symbols. Should the First Amendment protect such public speculation, or do such accusations constitute libel (knowingly lying with explicit intent to defame)?

Extension

Have students research Supreme Court rulings involving the limits of freedom of speech and press, including tests such as “fighting words,” (Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 1942), or “imminent lawless action” (Brandenburg v. Ohio, 1969); and “actual malice,” (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 1964). What principle(s) seem to guide the Court’s rulings? How, if at all, would these cases apply to the massacre in Arizona as well as reaction to it? Students can begin their research on our landmark Supreme Court cases page.

 

Second Amendment Right to Keep and Bear Arms Resources

Discussion Questions

1. Does the right to keep and bear arms protect the right to high-load magazines?

2. How, if at all, would the Supreme Court’s rulings in D.C. v. Heller(2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (2009) apply to this proposed federal law?

Sixth Amendment Criminal Procedure and Due Process Resources

Discussion Questions

1.  Why is the Arizona federal judiciary recusing (or removing) themselves from proceeding involving Jared Loughner? Do you believe this was necessary to ensure justice? Why or why not?