When some members of a private Facebook group made up partially of Border Patrol agents were discovered to have made offensive remarks, I think most of us who were paying attention were absolutely appalled.
We wanted something done. We wanted those responsible to be held accountable, and swiftly.
What we didn’t want were calls to prosecute anyone who makes fun of members of Congress. But Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat, thinks differently.
Wilson is perhaps known for her flamboyant hats and criticism of Donald Trump, who she’s said is “crazy” and has “a brain disorder.”
She also engaged in a widely covered spat with then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly in 2017 over comments that were made by President Donald Trump in a phone call to a Gold Star mother. At the time, Kelly said Wilson was mischaracterizing the remarks for political gain. Wilson would practically invite this interpretation, saying she was “a rock star now” as a result of the controversy.
If she thought she was a rock star then, well — just wait a few days.
So, a bit of setup here: On Tuesday, Wilson was leading the congressional delegation touring the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Florida, according to the Washington Examiner.
The day before, a separate visit by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to the controversial Clint, Texas facility — where allegations that children were being mistreated led to a rash of negative publicity — made headlines of its own, mainly involving strange claims regarding toilets.
That visit occurred on the same day that ProPublica reported on messages from the Border Patrol Facebook group, including messages regarding the visit itself.
“Several of the postings reviewed by ProPublica refer to the planned visit by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, including Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Veronica Escobar, to a troubled Border Patrol facility outside of El Paso,” ProPublica.org reported Monday. (WARNING: Link contains graphic language. Reader discretion is advised.)
“One member encouraged Border Patrol agents to hurl a ‘burrito at these b—-es.’ Another, apparently a patrol supervisor, wrote, ‘F— the h–s.’ ‘There should be no photo ops for these scum buckets,’ posted a third member.”
Another, which is too grotesque to even repeat in bowdlerized form, involves a pornographic illustration of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez at the detention center. It’s not known whether the individuals who made the worst remarks were Border Patrol agents. While ProPublica ascertained some of the accounts in the 9,500-member group linked to accounts from individuals who claimed to be with the Border Patrol, that’s as far as identification went.
Obviously, if these remarks were from agents, they shouldn’t have jobs with the Border Patrol anymore. However, I think it’s pretty clear that merely saying those things shouldn’t get them prosecuted — after all, they have First Amendment rights, right?
Rep. Wilson seemed to refer to those remarks when she spoke to reporters outside of the Homestead facility. I’m saying “seemed” because, in any other context, these remarks would be suicidal for a politician’s career.
“Those people who are online making fun of members of Congress are a disgrace, and there is no need for anyone to think that is unacceptable [sic],” Wilson said.
“We’re gonna shut them down and work with whoever it is to shut them down, and they should be prosecuted. You cannot intimidate members of Congress, frighten members of Congress. It is against the law, and it’s a shame in this United States of America.”
Democrat Rep. Frederica Wilson (FL) says that people who are “making fun of members of Congress” online “should be prosecuted” pic.twitter.com/f69KwOeJ0n
— Ryan Saavedra (@RealSaavedra) July 2, 2019
Well, that’s it: If you’re making fun of Congress online, you’ve officially been canceled. I mean, so long as you’re japing at Democrats. I’m pretty sure digs at Republicans remain lawful as far as Wilson is concerned.
In situations like this, it helps to dig through the gaffe and try to discover what the individual really meant in the first place. Except when you do that, it remains a gaffe.
All right, Wilson was probably referring specifically to the Border Patrol group, not generally to “people who are online making fun of members of Congress.” I’m going to guess she didn’t just mean “making fun” but was specifically referring to the offensive remarks. This is still casting what she said in a very charitable light, but I’m willing to do that.
The problem is that she’s still wrong.
Are the comments stomach-churningly offensive? Definitely. Should they lead to firings if they’re from Border Patrol agents? Absolutely. Are they threats? Not from what ProPublica has disclosed. Are they prosecutable? Almost certainly not.
Yes, some of these comments are sick. They’re also protected by the First Amendment.
And this is the most charitable reading of Rep. Wilson’s comments, mind you.
When you’re going to insist that people be arrested merely for what they said and what they said wasn’t a prima facie threat, you need to rhetorically thread the needle.
What we got from Rep. Wilson was “people who are online making fun of members of Congress are a disgrace” and “should be prosecuted.”
When you’re a rock star, maybe you don’t think you have to care about the Constitution you’re sworn to protect.
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