Senator Joe Benning, R-Caledonia
Editor’s Note: Sen. Benning is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee reviewing S265, the criminal threatening bill that would impose a sentence of up to five years in prison for threatening serious bodily injury or death to public officials and others. He was asked by VDC to comment.
This bill has me listening very carefully. As a constitutionalist, my first concern is to protect freedom of speech under the 1st Amendment. In addition, as a defense attorney, I am loathe to create a new felony crime. What I’m struggling with is how the current level of vitriol has literally begun to cross a line, putting otherwise thick-enough-skinned people into feeling serious fear and changes in their behavior.
Personally, I’m used to stupid people saying stupid things. (Just today I had an anonymous scathing and vulgar message left on my answering machine that got cut off in the mid sentence. My wife, who was standing nearby, thought somebody, who was more level headed, must have been standing by the caller and hung up the phone in the middle of his rant.) Through the years I’ve had many threats featuring all sorts of warnings of bodily injury and/or death. They’ve come in the middle of a threatened strike while I was on the school board, from victim’s families in crimes in which I’ve represented the accused, from opposing parties in contested custody battles, etc.
Even now, even as bad as it is, I continue to just take it as coming with the territory. But, elderly poll watchers, fresh-out-of-high school secretaries, and corrections guards have a far different impact when getting one of these calls.
When volunteer election poll watchers, state authorities in charge of voting tabulations, DCF workers, and DOC workers are disinclined to continue their jobs as a result of serious threats, a line gets crossed. I’m not talking about the high-paid upper level officials who are expected to put up with this crap. I’m talking about the ground level folks just trying run elections, keep kids safe, and keep incarcerated folks de-escalated. I’m not sure just yet how to deal with that line in today’s vitriolic environment. I don’t know how to scale back the rhetoric level without some kind of punitive response, but any response has to be cognizant of the 1st Amendment. So I’m listening very carefully before making up my mind.