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Leahy urges responsible tone

January 11, 2011


Staff Writer

BENNINGTON — Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy called for reasonable political discourse Tuesday during a speech outlining the priorities for the Senate Judiciary Committee he heads.

Speaking at the Newseum in Washington, Leahy said he was planning to simply outline the agenda for the Judiciary Committee in the 112th Congress that was sworn in last week. But “things changed over the weekend” after the shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others at a supermarket in Tucson, Ariz.

Patrick Leahy

Leahy, a Democrat, and the second most senior member of the Senate, began his speech urging Americans to examine their own role in the tone of public debate. “The tragic events of this past weekend call us to pause and reflect on the promise of democracy and our responsibilities as its beneficiaries and stewards,” Leahy said.

A longtime advocate of first amendment rights, Leahy said he does not support infringing on free expression. But people increasingly have more ways to communicate and to both send and receive information. He said people have a responsibility to do so wisely.

“In a free society — the society we always want America to be — government should not and must not restrain free expression. But with freedom come
responsibilities,” Leahy said. “The full flowering of democracy and freedom relies on the self restraint of each citizen, organization and group of citizens. The printed page, the radio microphone, the televised image, the TV ad, the blog posting and the Twitter feed all have the power to inspire, to motivate and to inform. They also have the power to inflame and incite.”

Leahy said “the seething rhetoric has gone too far,” and said public officials, the media and citizens must stop “demonizing” people who disagree with them.

“Our politics have become incendiary and we all share the responsibility for lowering the temperature. That is the responsibility we all have to keep our democracy strong and thriving,” he said.

He laid out several issues he wants the committee to address, including:

• Fighting fraud

• Protecting American jobs

• Protecting national security and Constitutional rights in a digital age

• Enhancing oversight and government transparency

The committee’s first hearing on Jan. 26 will examine “the recovery of more than $3 billion of taxpayers’ dollars in fraud actions by the Department of Justice,” Leahy said.

Leahy was asked by a reporter after the speech if gun laws would be examined following the assassination attempt on Giffords. He said calls to strengthen gun laws are likely.

He also noted that Vermont has one of the lowest crime rates in the country, and fairly relaxed gun laws. But Vermont’s laws would not be effective everywhere, he said.

“I would not want Vermont laws in an urban area,” Leahy said.

A one-time target for attack, Leahy, who received an anthrax-filled envelope in 2001 following the Sept. 11 terror attack, said lawmakers must not retreat behind walls of protection.

“I think it isolates you from the people you represent. It’s not the kind of country we are,” he said. “I think it would be a mistake if we put up any more barriers.”

Contact Neal P. Goswami at

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