Last month, NBC reporter Kelli Stavast was interviewing NASCAR driver Brandon Brown following his victory in the NASCAR Xfinity Series Sparks 300 race when fans started chanting “fuck Joe Biden.” But that’s not what Stavast heard.
And so the “let’s go Brandon” chant—a less vulgar way of signaling one’s opposition to the current president—was born. Fans say it at sports gatherings. Conservatives tweet it at each other. Even Republican politicians are getting in on it. Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas) has been known to say it.
Well, even though it was completely normal for Democrats to vigorously insult former President Donald Trump throughout his presidency, some liberal media figures have decided that the comparatively mild “let’s go Brandon” chant is an essentially violent utterance. Asha Rangappa, a commentator for CNN, said it was akin to making a pro-ISIS statement.
She was specifically referencing an incident on a recent Southwest Airlines flight where the pilot reportedly said “let’s go Brandon,” which triggered something of a meltdown on Twitter earlier this week. Another CNN analyst, Juliette Kayyem, who is a Harvard professor, said the passengers on that flight should file complaints with the Federal Aviation Administration.
When pressed on this point, she responded that his words “reflect possibility of anger management or substance abuse.”
Progressive political strategist and commentator Chris Hahn accused the pilot of “sympathizing with terrorist[s].” CNN’s Joe Lockhart attacked Southwest for not immediately firing the pilot. The airline is investigating the incident.
Keep in mind that what touched off this public freakout was an Associated Press story asserting that a pilot had uttered the statement. We don’t have audio footage of it, though I did listen to audio from another incident involving a pilot allegedly saying “let’s go Brandon,” and guess what? It really sounded like he was saying “let’s go Braves,” as in the sports team. I don’t know if that’s what happened here, but I would bet it was a simple misunderstanding. Even if it wasn’t, it would be wrong to treat the utterance of “let’s go Brandon” as a crime, or terrorist behavior.
Make no mistake: The chant is clearly First Amendment–protected speech, even if some would consider it hate speech. Contrary to what many progressive activists naively assume, hate speech is free speech. There is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment, because there is no mutually agreed-upon definition of hate speech, and there are no Supreme Court decisions supporting such an exception. The Supreme Court has carved out some categories of speech that don’t qualify for protection—threats of imminent violence, for instance—but hate speech isn’t one of them. On the contrary, the right to insult political leaders and government officials is perhaps the most important and obvious component of the First Amendment.