The foot and the First Amendment

    The now-infamous Kentucky incident, in which a Rand Paul acolyte saw fit to affix his sneakered foot to the head of a prostrate protester, is hardly the most important news event of the week. Still, I’m fascinated by the response to the event – particularly among conservative spin doctors who can’t even face the factual reality as recorded on actual video footage.

    Yep, we’ve reached the point, in our ideologically polarized era, where we can’t even forge a consensus based on what we can see with our own eyes.

    Lauren Valle, a MoveOn.org activist in a red hoodie, wanted to present Paul, the tea-party GOP senatorial candidate, with a mock award. It was a gag, an attempt to honor Paul for his alleged ties to corporate America. When she tried to approach Paul as he exited his campaign car the other night, she was steered away by Paul’s guardians. Paul exited the car and he was gone – but the guardians, ever alert to the purported threat, wrestled her to the ground. Whereupon Tim Profitt, a county coordinator in the Paul campaign, planted his shoe on her neck and shoulder, then pressed it down on her head.

    Notice, however, that I didn’t use the word stomp.

    That verb – which, in many quarters, has already come to define this incident – strikes me as too strong. Stomping is what Nazi goons did in the ’30s when they’d take a German Jew into an alley and render him senseless. Stomping is what Robert DeNiro and Joe Pecci did in Goodfellas, when they turned a guy into a hunk of meat on the bar floor. At least by comparison, Profitt’s needless coup de grace was far more benign. Valle was essentially unmarred and unscarred by the time she predictably surfaced on MSNBC one night later.

    Most noteworthy, however, is some of the response on the right – starting with Profitt’s willful state of denial. The footage shows that Paul’s guardians overreacted to Valle’s harmless prank. (In Kentucky, she had been running satirical events, mock-celebrating the merger of the GOP and corporate America, calling it “RepubliCorp.” That kind of left-leaning street theatre is probably a waste of time, but it’s harmless. And the Paul camp reportedly knew about Valle’s stunts.) Yet here was Profitt on Kentucky TV yesterday: “I would like her to apologize to me, to be honest with you.”

    At one point, he did feel compelled to explain why he had jammed his foot against her head (“I couldn’t bend over because I have issues with my back”), but mostly he put the onus on her: “When all the facts come out, she’s the one who initiated the whole thing.”

    What she had actually “initiated” was her First Amendment right to protest and dissent. Profitt seems not to understand what that is – as evidenced by what he told the Associated Press: “A friend of mine went up to three policemen before Rand got there and told them about the girl who was standing there with that wig on and that she was ready to do something. The policemen looked at him and said, ‘That’s not our job.'”

    Memo to Profitt:  Those cops were right. In America, if you’re standing at a candidate’s event with a wig and a poster, you’re not supposed to get preemptively hauled away.

    Facts and footage notwithstanding, however, various conservative voices have reacted in predictable fashion. The first necessary task was to demonize Valle – as “an unhinged leftist,” a stalker, a “professional agitator,” as “another paid Soros activist (who) tries to incite violence.”

    Incite violence?

    Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh went on the air to deny what we can see with our own eyes: “Her head was not stepped on, her shoulders were.” No word yet on whether Tim Profitt will land a show on Fox News, or sub for Limbaugh when the big guy goes on vacation.

    Granted, passions are running high in this campaign season. But given the fact that a young woman in Kentucky was subsumed by a foot for having the temerity to protest a tea-party candidate, and that a reporter in Alaska was handcuffed and carted away by tea-party Senate candidate Joe Miller’s bodyguards for having the temerity to ask pesky questions, perhaps it would appear that the right has an insufficient grasp of the First Amendment. It’s enough to make me want to take my country back.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.