What clueless Nancy Pelosi doesn't seem to understand about free speech

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), is perhaps the most powerful representative the Democrats have. When she speaks, it means something. And what she’s been speaking about lately is that others shouldn’t be speaking at all.

That’s frightening. One might expect extremists in her party to have trouble with the First Amendment, but it’s alarming that the top Democrat in the House jumps on the bandwagon. Is this how most Democrats feel?

The National Park Service recently announced that a right-wing rally by the group Patriot Prayer can go forward Saturday at federally owned Crissy Field in San Francisco, near the Golden Gate Bridge. Pelosi calls members of the group white supremacists (though they say they support peace, love and unity). While the group is controversial, the right of its members to speak shouldn’t be.

But it sure is to Pelosi, whose grip on the First Amendment appears a bit shaky. This is from her statement on the National Park Service decision:

“In San Francisco, we have great reverence for the Constitutional right to dissent and peaceful free speech,” Pelosi said. “However, free speech does not grant the right to yell fire in a crowded theater, incite violence or endanger the public in any venue. As we ponder where and by whom the ill-conceived decision to approve this permit in a national park was made, we must all pray it does not become an invitation to incite violence.”

Pelosi reveres the “right to dissent and peaceful free speech?” Then the rally shouldn’t trouble her. Patriot Prayer wants to present a different viewpoint, and the permit allows members to hold a peaceful rally to express their beliefs, not to loot and pillage.

Then Pelosi pulls out the old chestnut about yelling fire in a crowded theatre. She’s paraphrasing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous line about “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

Holmes actually described a very limited exception to the First Amendment, but that doesn’t stop every would-be censor from pulling it out. In fact, so many have misused the Holmes statement, and so often, that I’m guessing if he were around today he’d regret he ever wrote it.

Perhaps the most troubling part of Pelosi’s response is that she worries the rally will become an “invitation to incite violence.” What does that mean? If members of Patriot Prayer commit violence, they should be held responsible and prosecuted.

But if groups opposing Patriot Prayer – and a number have promised to show up – don’t like what they hear and attack the rally, then they are responsible for their own violence. Pelosi shouldn’t be afraid to say that, but based on her phrasing, it almost sounds like the opposition could claim “it’s not our fault, they incited us.”

Discussing this issue on TV recently, Pelosi said “the Constitution does not say that a person can yell wolf in a crowded theatre.”

I can forgive her for the gaffe. In fact, she may be right – falsely yelling “wolf!” in a crowded theatre might cause a panic as much as shouting “fire!”

What I can’t forgive her for is the sentiment behind it. It makes her a wolf in sheep’s clothing, claiming to protect the safety of the public, when all she’ll do is rip up the Constitution.