EDITORIAL: Seek civility: Public harassment wrong; in many cases, also illegal

It’s never been easier to speak freely. Internet platforms and free long-distance calling enable people to contact others half a world away with little trouble or expense. Unfortunately, distance and anonymity have emboldened some people who use these conveniences to harass, abuse and even threaten others. Courts have found many people guilty of crimes of using internet platforms to threaten, harass and even goad people into committing crimes or, worse, suicide.

Most people can block such blockheads. That isn’t an option for people whose professions or positions of public service preclude them from cutting off access to members of the public, however.

But no one should have to endure the kind of abuse that Hidalgo County Republican Party Chair Adrienne Pena-Garza reported she received on Jan. 12, just before President Trump’s last official visit to the Rio Grande Valley.

Pena-Garza referred the phone message she received, which was filled with obscenities and epithets, to police; the status of the investigation is unknown.

The call originated from Florida, but the party official said she still felt threatened and traumatized. Most people who make such calls don’t have the nerve to actually act on their threats, especially from so far away — but we only need remember the 2019 massacre in which a gunman drove more than 600 miles from a Dallas suburb to El Paso, where he killed 23 people and wounded 23 more, to understand why even long-distance calls must be taken seriously.

Harassing, abusive and threatening calls and messages are illegal in most cases. Both Texas and Florida have laws against such abuse, and since the call utilized a phone network and crossed state lines, the caller apparently also violated federal law.

Freedom of expression is one of our most important and treasured freedoms. However, there is no shortage of legal opinions asserting that the right is not absolute — and the abuse of that right to terrorize others is precisely why it isn’t.

Sadly, this kind of abuse isn’t unique; in fact, it appears to be becoming more common. County Democratic Party Chair Norma Ramirez said she also has had to endure similar abuse, both electronically and in person, and even has been spit upon. Protesters and hecklers have been showing up at most recent political events, and in the weeks leading up to the November election campaign buses were surrounded by vehicles harassing them and even trying to force them to stop or drive them off the road. Such actions go beyond free expression and cross into violence and terrorism.

Many people have suggested that former President Trump’s aggressive public style inspired people to follow his example, and they express hopes that abusive behavior will abate with the new administration. The truth is that such behavior existed long before Trump’s election.

Will things calm down without such a public example of aggressive behavior? We can only hope so. We must hope that people come to realize that just as they want their views to be tolerated, they also must tolerate the views of others. Most importantly, they should learn that differences of opinion are not personal attacks, and should not be delivered as such.