By EMERSON LYNN
Threats to Vermont legislators have prompted the Speaker of the House and the Capitol Police chief to remove the personal contact information from the state Legislature’s website.
It’s a choice that begs for additional information. What sorts of threats? To whom and how many? What prompted the threats?
It’s important to know because removing the legislators’ contact information also limits the public’s ability to communicate with their legislators. It’s a given there are far more people reaching out to their legislators in good faith than there are people who haven’t the decency to communicate sans threats. It’s important to encourage the former and discourage the later.
The worry regarding the elimination of the personal contact information is the threat to the democratic process. The more difficult it is to communicate with our representatives the less we communicate. The goal is to increase communication, not reduce it, and that goal is worth considerable latitude.
It also would help to know if the threats were tied to a particular issue. Last session, for example, the emotional highlight was the governor’s proposal to change the state’s gun laws. The opposition turned out in force and, at times, it was ugly. And personal. Does that single issue account for most of the threats?
If so, then removing the legislators’ personal contact information is an overreaction since we’re not expected to revisit the same issue. Additionally, even if the Legislature considers new legislation to create a waiting period before a gun can be purchased, people have the right to contact their representatives and legislators know in advance what to expect.
We also deceive ourselves if we believe that removing one’s personal contact information eliminates the ability of society’s cretins to lash out. Anyone so motivated can find ways to get in touch with their legislators in offensive ways.
It’s the hiding of information that is the concern. If the legislators’ contact information is removed are we not yielding to the miscreants and driving them underground where it is more difficult to know what’s going on?
The point here is not to encourage violence, or hate-filled speech, or to put our legislators at risk. The objective is to make things more transparent, not less. If people are exposed for casting threats, then perhaps they would do less of it. [What if a site were developed that allowed legislators – and/or the capitol police – to post all those comments found threatening?] Legislators can choose for themselves whether to have their personal contact information removed from the Legislature’s website [this doesn’t apply to senators, whose personal contact information remains as is.] We would urge them to keep it public and we would also urge them to be transparent when the threats do come. Make the threats public. [Forward them to us and we’ll make them public.] When people communicate with their legislators there should be a disclaimer that whatever communication is exchanged is also part of the public record.
That’s fighting back, not allowing hate-mongers to control the narrative.
That’s what we have to do. We’ve been made painfully aware that social media outlets, unintended or not, skew the public dialogue to the extreme. Belatedly, we’re trying to fight back, but fighting back doesn’t include hiding, or making it more difficult to reach those whose job it is to advocate on our behalf.
Fighting back means drawing the public discussion out in the open.