Offensive social media posts lead to debate on public speech

Posts on social media platforms are shown to have become more offensive

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A Republican legislative candidate’s tweet that Democratic President Barack Obama should be hanged and a school board member’s Facebook posts widely deemed racist and sexist are generating heated debate about what’s acceptable in public speech.

State House candidate Mike McGarghan, running to represent a district in Burlington, is standing by a tweet he posted this year calling for Obama to be hanged for treason.

More than one person suggested the threat against Obama could be a crime. McGarghan told The Burlington Free Press he has not been contacted by the Secret Service, which investigates threats against presidents.

McGarghan did not immediately respond to three messages left by The Associated Press for him on Friday.

Last week, Burlington schools Commissioner David Kirk, who’s white, apologized for Facebook posts that included one suggesting he was more offended by blacks wearing baggy pants than by the Confederate flag and another showing a woman tied to a bed. There was no answer Friday at a Burlington phone number listed for Kirk.

The posts are seen as a black eye for Burlington, which has about 40,000 residents, mostly white. The city, where independent US Sen. Bernie Sanders once served as mayor, is home to the University of Vermont and is known for progressive politics.

State Rep. Kurt Wright, like McGarghan a Republican running in a two-seat House district that includes Burlington’s New North End, said voters were talking with him about the social media posts as he campaigned.

“I think there’s a lot of concern in the community about the language that’s being used,” Wright said. “I’m hearing it door to door.”

Burlington, which as of 2010 was 89 percent white, according to Census statistics, has become more diverse in recent years, with immigrants arriving from Africa and elsewhere.

Curtiss Reed Jr., who’s black, is executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity. He said that among white residents “there is a small segment as though they are losing their sense of place as Burlington becomes more ethically and culturally diverse.”

Of the post targeting Obama, Reed noted he’s the nation’s first black president. Hanging was the penalty for treason at the time of the nation’s founding and was the most common method for racially motivated lynchings.

“This is the imagery that’s being projected,” Reed said.

Reed said he’s a strong defender of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free-speech rights, but he suggested public officials undergo training when they assume office.

“You are elected to represent all the people and not just the people who agreed with you,” he noted.

Reed and lawyer Robert Appel, a member of the American Civil Liberties Union Vermont chapter’s board and a former executive director of the state Human Rights Commission, agreed that the simplest and strongest remedy for elected officials making such comments can be found at the ballot box.

The best cure for such speech, Appel said, “is more speech and people voting for who they think will best represent them in a public body.”

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