LIBBY EMMONS: The First Amendment means we get to make jokes—Douglass Mackey should not be serving time for a meme

A man is going to federal prison for a meme. He’s going to prison for satire, for a joke. It began back during the meme wars of 2016 when memesters across the web were sending out jokes, essentially political cartoons, making fun of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, boosting Donald Trump, and generally wreaking glorious havoc on political discourse across the web.

Douglass Mackey shared a meme that essentially made the joke that Hillary Clinton supporters were too lacking in intelligence to realize they couldn’t submit their vote by text. “Avoid the line,” the joke said, “vote from home.” It was funny. It was not a big deal. It didn’t sway anyone to think they could vote via text. Biden’s Department of Justice couldn’t even find anyone who believed it was true, or who actually tried to vote by text. A Clinton supporter did the same thing, instructing Trump voters to vote on the wrong day. 

Kristina Wong was not arrested for her joke. She will not be going to prison for 7 months because of it. But this has gone far beyond a double standard, this is the political prosecution of speech. Imagine if George Bush had gone after Jon Stewart. Imagine if Trump had gone after Alec Baldwin or Nixon went after Carlin. Would any of that have been tolerated? What about prosecution for political cartoons? But Hillary Clinton celebrated the prosecution and imprisonment of a man for making a joke at her expense. She said the meme went "from what you would consider free speech... to running a very deliberate effort to mislead people about where and how to vote. So it went from speech to action meant to subvert the election." The ACLU agreed. 

The whole thing is insane. Yet we’re not seeing any outcries from those who believe themselves to be staunch defenders of free speech. We’re seeing tweets, sure, but where is the organized effort to oppose this disastrous violation of our First Amendment rights? Americans have allowed their rights to be beaten so far into the ground that we stand idly by while a man is imprisoned for making a joke.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances," the First Amendment to our Bill of Rights reads.

That means we get to make jokes. We get to go to church. We get to protest in favor of our rights. Mackey isn’t the only one. In the UK, in Canada, in Europe, we see people charged with crimes for liking tweets like an MP in Poland, or complaining about immigration like a man in the UK, or saying men aren’t women like in Canada. I always thought America was better than that. I thought we were a land of the free, a land where we could speak out minds without fear of government retribution.

What the Mackey case shows us is not that I was wrong, but that we have let our guard down, we have become complacent. Our rights are worth fighting for, and without our First Amendment, the rest will also fall to ruin. These rights are not government granted, they are God given, and if the government doesn’t respect that, it’s time to remind our elected leaders that our rights are, in fact absolute, and that we don’t work for government, government works for us. And if it isn’t working, it’s our God-given right to change it.


Image: Title: Emmons Mackey
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