Robertson's urging the government to assassinate Chavez

Janet Alexander jca at
Fri Aug 26 19:08:43 PDT 2005

         I come late to this discussion because I was in Italy when 
Robertson made his statements.  In the English-language TV news there (BBC, 
CNN) Robertson's comments were reported as statements by an important US 
public figure -- "a former presidential candidate," religious leader and 
prominent supporter of Pres. Bush -- urging the US government to 
assassinate Chavez.  The news reports invariably noted that Chavez is the 
democratically elected president of Venezuela "and not a dictator as 
Robertson stated."  The news reports also noted that Bush had not 
repudiated the views of this prominent supporter.  The programs usually 
also reported the suspicions that the US government was behind the failed 
coup against Chavez a few years ago.  When Robertson denied he had used the 
word "assassination," these mainstream western news media ran the clip in 
which he did use the word.  (One also ran a clip of Jon Stewart of the 
Daily Show on Robertson's comment that killing Chavez would not stop the 
flow of Venezuelan oil.)

         In other words, this list's focus on the words' legality under the 
1st Amendment (which to me seems clear), vague statements that Chavez might 
be "a bad guy," and parsing comparisons to Salman Rushdie in my view miss 
the big constitutional point.  In other western democracies this was big 
news because a strong ally of the US president, perceived as more 
mainstream than he is because he ran for president, advocated that the US 
government assassinate a democratically elected head of state and the US 
president was not repudiating the suggestion.

         --Janet Alexander

At 02:23 PM 8/24/2005 -0400, Miguel Schor wrote:
>        Although I disagree with the suggestion that there are people whom
>the US is entitled to assassinate (such as the leaders of nations with whom
>we are at peace), I would like to add some very important practical reasons
>why this is a counterproductive (as well as a nutty) idea which goes to the
>heart of the problem of the construction of constitutional democracy in
>Latin America.
>        Constitutional democracy failed to take root in the region for a
>number of reasons but one of them has clearly been US policy in the region.
>The "thirty years war" that the US waged in Latin America during the Cold
>War principally via its proxies not only facilitated the murder, torture,
>and oppression of countless human beings in the region, it also froze the
>left out of power.  Democracy, quite obviously, cannot emerge without an
>alternation in power by different political groups and a belief by those out
>of power that one day they will be able to obtain power.  The left in Latin
>America understood that the US had rigged the rules of the political game in
>a manner that prevented it from taking power.  The only option for the left
>then was exit from the political process and entrance into the path of armed
>        I have little doubt that Chavez's policies will prove to be failures.
>But that is a lesson for the people of Venezuela to learn without US
>tutelage or US force.  Only that way will the lessons needed for democracy
>to thrive be learned.  If we should learn anything from the rise to power of
>Castro is that tutelary or protected "democracy" (which is the role that the
>US played in Cuba before 1959) will simply fuel revolution.   Miguel
>        -----Original Message-----
>From: conlawprof-bounces at
>[mailto:conlawprof-bounces at] On Behalf Of Volokh, Eugene
>Sent: Wednesday, August 24, 2005 1:28 PM
>To: ConLaw Prof
>Subject: RE: Robertson's urging the government to assassinate Chavez
>         I think it's positively valuable for people to be able to debate
>        whether the government should assassinate foreign leaders.  Some
>        leaders should be assassinated; if treaties prohibit us from doing
>        then we need to consider whether we should get out of those treaties;
>        laws prohibit the President from doing that, then we need to consider
>        whether we should repeal those laws.  I find little morally appealing
>        the notion that it's OK to kill enemy soldiers -- or soldiers of a
>        country that wasn't our enemy until five minutes ago, when we decided
>        that it was proper to attack them -- but not OK to kill their
>        commander-in-chief.
>         I think there are sound practical arguments against such
>        assassination -- among other things, a tit-for-tat pattern of
>        assassination is likely to hurt democracies (where many politicians
>        share power, where the politicians ought to be more accessible to the
>        people, and where most politicians other than the President and the
>        Vice-President generally are) more than autocracies (where the few
>        leaders who have power can often hole up in their bunkers).  But
>        are questions that deserve consideration and frequent debate.
>         I don't think we should be assassinating Chavez, for many
>        overlapping reasons.  But the line between him and the people whom we
>        are at least morally entitled to assassinate is likely to be a very
>        fuzzy one, and urging that the government put the line in this place
>        rather than that strikes me as core constitutionally protected
>         This having been said, I agree that if a side effect of the
>        speech is for people (whether civilians or rogue elements in the
>        military, acting without their superiors' agreement) to do the
>        assassination themselves, that's quite unfortunate.  Perhaps in some
>        situations speech like the one we're discussing might be restricted
>        because of this side effect, though that's a complex question.  But
>        these facts, it strikes me that this side effect is highly unlikely.
>         Eugene
>        Sandy Levinson writes:
>         I Pat Robertson were sojourning in the UK and made a similar
>        about assassinating someone the Blair government liked, would he not
>        qualify for immediate expulsion under the new standards.  Indeed, if
>        Robertson were a resident alien within the US., might not the US
>        consider deporting him as a "terrorist," similar to some of the
>        who have been gone after for ostensibly supporting Middle Eastern
>        organizations?  So is the strong First Amendment defense of Robertson
>        based on the fact that he is, after all, a citizen, or on the
>        that "any person" within the US, including resident aliens, is free
>        counsel the murder of  those deemed "bad people" from the speaker's
>        perspective?  And if we support citizen speech but not resident alien
>        speech, is that because we give some special "credit," as it were, to
>        the speech of our fellow citizens, or simply out of a positivist
>        that we're "stuck" with the First Amendment and have to tolerate
>        kinds of egregious speech, but the FA, at the end of the day,
>        only citizens?
>        _______________________________________________
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Janet Cooper Alexander
Frederick I. Richman Professor of Law
Stanford Law School
Stanford CA 94301-8610
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