The answer to the question "Does freedom of speech give you the right to be rude and obnoxious?" is "yes."
That question was posed by Pittsfield native and Celebrity Boxing champ Todd Poulton in an interview with Phil Demers (Eagle, December 31). A supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Mr. Poulton knocked down a protester at a Trump rally in New Hampshire Monday, but denied media reports that he threw a punch at the man, who was escorted away by police unharmed. A garrulous individual nicknamed "The Punisher" who sports a prominent facial tattoo, Mr. Poulton attracted national and international media attention because of the incident.
Attacks on protesters are not uncommon at Trump rallies. The most prominent came in Alabama in November when a protester who shouted "black lives matter" was kicked and punched by Trump supporters. "Maybe he should have been roughed up," said Trump to Fox News. Mr. Trump tends to couch his remarks about harsh treatment of protesters as suggestions or rhetorical questions to absolve himself of responsibility, but the candidate's semantic gymnastics shouldn't fool anyone.
That right to free speech, even if obnoxious, doesn't absolve anyone of responsibility for their actions. Any individual who disrupts a political rally should expect to be removed by the proper authorities, whether security officials or police, and perhaps face prosecution. That applies to rallies for Mr. Trump or for Hillary Clinton.
Protesters should not, however, be physically assaulted by supporters of a political candidate. That's the kind of behavior that takes place in totalitarian states, not in the United States. Candidates like Mr. Trump who encourage that behavior, however obliquely, contribute to the undermining of a basic American right.