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The First Amendment asserts our right to free speech. Both private citizens and public officials have the right to speak freely and voice their opinions.

However, freedom comes with responsibility. Free speech that leads to violence and harm of others makes the speaker complicit in the deed. If what you say causes someone to harm another person, you should be held responsible, albeit to a lesser degree, for these actions. Unfortunately, the negative power of words is being revealed in the wake of the passage of health care reform.

Throughout the past year we have witnessed one of the more politically polarized eras in our nation’s history. Over the last 18 months, we’ve heard much rhetoric from both sides of the aisle regarding health care reform. Public officials, private citizens and talk-show hosts (who fall somewhere in between these groups) set forth their views about health care reform – often quite freely and with little, if any, personal censorship.

Before I go on, let me be clear. I’m not arguing for or against the health care legislation. Rather, I’m arguing that free speech is a great privilege that comes with great responsibility. I believe many of our public officials and talk-show hosts failed miserably in exercising this right in a socially and morally responsible manner during the past year. For that, they should be held accountable for being complicit in the negative, demeaning and threatening behavior of those who follow them.

Since the passage of the health care bill on March 21, Democratic leaders who voted to pass the legislation have received myriad threats to their lives and overall well-being from people angry about, and staunchly opposed to, this legislation. Certainly these individuals should be held responsible and prosecuted accordingly. However, at some point you have to ask what influenced these individuals or groups to act in such a manner.

Given that most Americans have not (and will not) read the health care reform bill, they depend on public officials and talk-show hosts whom they trust to give them the “facts.” Could the demeaning, caustic, belligerent and, in my estimation, untrue or partially true rhetoric of public officials and talk-show personalities opposed to the legislation be a factor in such behavior? And if so, should they not be held responsible for the consequences of their free speech?

When the Republican leadership calls the health care reform bill a “government takeover of health care” and equates it with socialism when it is not, should they not be held responsible for this misinformation that breeds fear, resentment and anger in their constituency?

When Sarah Palin fabricates the existence of “death panels” in the legislation (and when conservative leaders continually repeat these claims), should they not be held responsible?

When you have talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck comparing Obama to Hitler and the health care reform to the eugenics practiced under Nazi Germany, are they not complicit in the violent, mindless, immoral actions that we are seeing?

When those opposed to health care reform raise the ire of small business owners by telling them that the government is going to force them to provide health insurance to all their employees – when this is not true according to Politifact.com – should they not be liable?

When you have a House representative yelling out “baby killer” at Rep. Bart Stupak when he spoke in favor of the bill, which will not fund abortions with federal tax money, should they not be held accountable when Stupak receives vitriolic voice mails expressing the hope that he contracts cancer and dies?

Yes, Republican leaders have condemned the violent threats against Democrats, but is this a case of too little, too late? Does condemning violence that was created, at least in part, by your own misinformation, half-truths and caustic rhetoric really solve anything? Should they not be held responsible for the actions (and reactions) of their followers?

To be fair, analogous situations, at least partly fueled by similar rhetoric on the other side of the aisle, arose during Bush’s presidency. Those whose free speech was used poorly and led to similar behavior against Bush and Republican leaders should have been held responsible.

However, this does not justify the current state of affairs, but only further illustrates the great responsibility that comes with freedom of speech. The question I’m raising transcends political partisanship.

Does the First Amendment protect free speech without any consideration of the consequences, or do those who speak freely, especially those in positions of power and influence, have a moral responsibility to censor themselves? And if they fail to do so, should they not be complicit in the violent, threatening behavior fueled by their free speech? There are protections against libel and slander; should there be consequences for those whose hate-filled rhetoric leads to violence?

Misinformation is ubiquitous, but our public officials and talk-show hosts should know better than to intentionally spread demonstrably false information to their constituents and should be held accountable when they do so. Saying something enough times does not make it true. However, it can persuade others, perhaps even you, that it is true.

As we are witnessing, hate-filled speech can have devastating consequences. Free speech comes with responsibility, and those who use their free speech in ways that lead to violence or threats of violence should be held accountable for their actions.

Zach Dawes is a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship ministerial resident at Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. His blog is here.

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