Benning: has public vitriol “crossed a line,” making new law necessary?

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.

Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee now considering S265.

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. 

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19 replies »

  1. I find it telling, Mr. Benning, that your observation is as one-sided as it is. You raise a typical and anonymous strawman threat, left on your answering machine, as the only characterization of an instance of ‘stupid people saying stupid things’, without the slightest concern that what you do as a legislator might be equally offensive to those who feel they have no other recourse than to leave you a ‘vitriolic’ message. Can you not see that a school board that supports a curriculum of social dogma, that a parent may find as utterly repugnant, isn’t equally ‘vitriolic’?

    If you want to truly be ‘cognizant of the 1st Amendment’, legislate across the board School Choice tuitioning so all of the ‘stupid people saying stupid things’ don’t have to listen to you or any other legislator. I can assure you, if the legislature passes a provision allowing parents to choose the education programs they believe best meets the needs of their children, the only ‘vitriolic’ messages you will receive will be from those who can no longer ‘threaten’ others from behind the veil of ‘qualified immunity’.

  2. If Sen. Benning has difficulty with the vitriol now, it’s time to step away from the legislature.
    Should S.265 or any other legislation clearly censoring speech be enacted, he will undoubtedly find himself in the cross-hairs of the censors. It’s called- What goes around, Comes around. It will find anyone that disagrees with whomever is in control.

  3. Free speech…..particularly when directed at any public official…is free speech. It’s constitutionally protected. And yes there are laws already that lay out what “crosses the line”.

    Before you get too exercised about the public anger at instituions and….our present voting processes PLEASE DEMAND THAT WE BE GIVEN A COMPLETE ACCOUNTING OF ALL FACEBOOK FUNDING THAT CAME INTO VERMONT IN 2020 “TO ASSIST” IN OUR VOTING PROCESS] Where PRECISELY did the money come from? How much? Where did it go? Who PRECISELY did what for that money? What did it buy? Why/how was any of this “legal”.

    WHO COUNTS THOSE VOTES…WHERE AND HOW? I think VT should immediately return to hand counted –and witnessed– paper ballots…..immediately……THROW OUT ALL OF THE VOTING MACHINES and any political machine that has captured our voting processes.

    THEN, and not until then, the vitriol levels may subside.

      • Thank you for showing us this two-edged sword.

        Myth vs. Fact indeed. So says the fox (the Sec. of State) guarding the election chicken coop.

        That all of the points deliberated on this web site are proverbial strawman exaggeration is no surprise. But the one that caught my attention was saved for last on the list – likely placed there in the hope that no one would read that far.

        MYTH: “Vermont took private donations from Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg which influenced how our elections were run.”

        Well, no, ….it wasn’t a myth.

        “The Secretary of State’s office did apply for grants from the Center for Election Innovation & Research, a nonpartisan nonprofit which did receive donations from Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan to distribute to states in need.”

        “VT was awarded $405,000 and purchased video production, radio spots, TV and online ads to let VTers know their options for voting on and before Election Day.”

        “VT spent $312,614.98 of this money and returned $92,385.02. There were no strings attached to this funding other than to educate voters about election changes for 2020 as we saw fit.”

        No strings attached?

        Well, yes….

        “In exchange for the money, elections divisions agreed to conduct their elections according to conditions set out by the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which is led by former members of the New Organizing Institute, a training center for progressive groups and Democratic campaigns.”

        As reported by Guy Page more than a year ago,…. to review the list of the 112 Vermont communities receiving the grant may be found at the following link.

        “This private funding has never been done before,” said Hayden Dublois, a researcher at the Foundation for Government Accountability. “We hear about dark money and corporations buying ads, but never have we seen hundreds of millions of private dollars going into the conducting of elections. And states didn’t have any laws on the books to stop it.”

        Vermont still doesn’t have laws on the books to stop this coercion – and we can than the usual legislator suspects.

  4. Previous commentators seem not to have read Sen. Benning’s comments very carefully. He makes it very clear that he is not giving consideration to protections for himself or “high-paid, upper-bevel officials,” but for employees who are just trying to do their jobs and who, for the most part, are not responsible for the policies they are called to implement. And he makes it equally clear that he has not reached any conclusions and that his first concern is to honor the First Amendment. How that merits the negative reactions of the previous commentators beats me.

    • Nice try Mr. Koch. The only example of public vitriol cited by Mr. Benning was an anecdotal reference to an anonymous and unspecific voicemail message allegedly directed at him for his legislative conduct. And from that reference we are to assume that additional laws may be necessary to protect “elderly poll watchers, fresh-out-of-high school secretaries, and corrections guards”, not to mention “volunteer election poll watchers, state authorities in charge of voting tabulations, DCF workers, and DOC workers”. Government workers all.

      No, Mr. Benning hasn’t reached any conclusions. But his strawman nose is already peeking under the tent.

      What specific instances of threatening others are you talking about? Why don’t existing laws already on the books suffice? What about those of us who work in the private sector? And why do you ignore parents who are being intimidated by school boards and school administrators? Not to mention this implied threat of additional legislation clearly targeted at the rest of us, based solely on a typical strawman fallacy? Do you know what a ‘strawman fallacy’ is?

      ‘A straw man fallacy occurs when someone takes another person’s argument or point, distorts it or exaggerates it in some kind of extreme way, and then attacks the extreme distortion, as if that is really the claim the first person is making.’

      And in this case, Mr. Benning’s exaggeration is nothing more than an anonymous, unspecific, alleged voicemail message just to let us know that he is justified in keeping his eyes on us… you know… we, the ‘stupid people saying stupid things’.

      Well, I have news for you both. Fool me once….

    • Benning’s feint that this is for the”little people” is disingenuous at best.
      Once legislation such as this is in place, Free speech of all manner is subject to the legislative intent, therefore censored by whomever is in power at the time.
      It may well be that some of the people allegedly making these “threats” have determined that their representatives in government are not listening to their constituents. There is a great deal of reports of Vermont elected officials not responding to letters, e-mails and phone calls.
      Is Mr. Benning one of these legislators? My experience is that he is.

  5. Perhaps Senator Benning just gave himself away when he said the following, and I quote, “Personally, I’m used to stupid people saying stupid things.”

    If you are angry with your representation, you must be stupid!

    This is all you need to know about Senator Benning.

  6. Perhaps if he or any elected official would would address and actually do something about the rotted, corrupted systems he is actively taking part in, he wouldn’t be getting such voice mails. They pretend to care – they are nothing but liars and scam artists.

  7. Ahhh yes… the old “we will put you little people in jail for criticizing us, but only because it offends other little people” argument.
    Nice fake story though. We haven’t heard the “received death threats” BS in at least a week.

  8. The other two involved in this is are Phil Baruth of Burlington and Dick (time to retire) Sears. Senator Baruth has been involved in every gun control proposal and has an unnatural fear of firearms. Being from New York, the police state of the east, he comes by it naturally. Also as a professor of the current woke era and the left totalitarians, he of course would like to throw all stupid, religious firearms enthusiasts into court for the slightest of reasons. If he and Sears can get you into court, they can also take your firearms away. All of this is the incremental never ending push to crush the individual freedoms of Vermonters from those who came from other places to change Vermont into their utopian hell. Two years ago I would have thought that Joe Benning wasn’t part of this crowd. That changed for me in January of 2020 when he called out Trump supporters from Vermont who rode buses to DC in protest of the fake election. With legislators like these 3, soon it will be illegal to do almost anything which seems in line with our current batch under the Golden Doom. The only proposed freedom is a constitutional amendment to kill the unborn right up until birth. This is what the voters have done to Vermont.

  9. Senator Benning has once again proven himself to be the face of hypocrisy. Pretending to be the voice of reason for the “little people ” while citing that stupid people make stupid remarks.
    Benning has declared his candidacy for Lieutenant Governor of Vermont.
    Maybe part of his campaign speech can be from his interview on WCAX where he said 117,000 Vermonters that voted for Trump weren’t Republicans and they should get out of the Party. He was defending Phil Scott from the day before when Scott went even further, calling those 117,000 Vermonters White Supremacist’s and racist’s.
    But that’s not vitriol is it Benning ?
    How about your two votes for Proposition 5 ? Far more than a horrific abortion Bill, it will allow the State to take a 5 year old child that self declares to another gender from their Parents. Then the State will chemically and physically disfigure the child, making it a crime for the Parents to protect their child.
    God forbid they speak any vitriol to fight for their child.

  10. I’m offended by your being offended, and making me responsible for YOUR triggers, Senator.
    I’m pretty sure fear of being held accountable (vitriol is generally from people whose voiced are silenced, quashed or censored, my man).
    Your rights end where your fear begins.
    My rights stand in spite of YOUR fears.
    As a woman of nearly 71 years, the vitriole from males (just for common example) all my life because I didn’t kowtow to their Daddy issues that told them they had power over me, and if I didn’t comply, started gaslighting me and coercing me into compliance, or silence.
    I’ve heard it all.
    I have elected NO ONE to be the gatekeeper of my Soul.
    YOU cannot legislate manners, speech, or individualism…but you are trying.
    Now I see you for what you are:
    A card carrying communist who shuts down opposing views.
    I DID have hope for you at one point… I did.
    Repentance is always available.
    #FreedomConvoy – just a fringe group, right?
    Senator Benning… you are a lost, fearful soul.

  11. This man is an embarrassment to the GOP in VT. He needs to brush up on the 5 freedoms embodied in the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

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