This wonderful phrase was first used in a 1912 Oregon Supreme Court case State v. Rader. Mr. Rader was accused and convicted of arson when he burned two of his neighbor's haystacks. At trial, the prosecution's theory was that Rader committed the crime in retaliation for the victim of the arson reporting that Rader had cut off the tail of one of the victim's cows. This testimony was allowed by the Judge which meant that the Judge did not instruct the jury to ignore the unrelated testimony. We call that a reversible error. On appeal the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that it was not an easy task to unring the bell of the inadmissible testimony. This meant that the jury was unduly influenced. So, Rader's haystacks and cow's tail removal went un-avenged.
What does this 108 year- old case have to do with our life today? Simple. We all say things that we regret, sometimes for the rest of our lives. Politicians from the White House to the guardhouse say awful things that they may or may not regret. With today's electronic communication, racially insensitive remarks, incendiary rhetoric, self-serving blather, disrespecting women and just plain gross distortions of the truth, can be blasted out to tens of millions of eyes and ears causing great damage to government's credibility.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says Congress shall not abridge freedom of speech or the press. The Founders never dreamed of Facebook and Twitter. The press to them was a newspaper with a few reporters. It took weeks for news to travel from remote areas. Yet that press was granted the right to operate nearly without restraint. Today we can abridge free speech if it is hateful or dangerous. You can't yell "fire" in a theater just because you feel like it. The term "Clear and Present Danger" means that the gravity, evil and improbability of a statement allows free speech to be abridged to avoid danger. Neo-Nazi's marching in uniform denying the Holocaust in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood may not meet the test unless it can be proven that there is a resultant danger. Simply being repulsed is not enough.
Twitter and Facebook and virtually all responsible media are grappling with this conundrum. We don't want to limit free speech but these giant profit machines should not be the purveyors of lies and deceit to millions. To appear responsible, Twitter warns us that the content of a politician's smoke and mirrors should be verified by the reader. How many of the Tweet-junkies make the time or have the time to research the truth. Truth seekers would be the exception to the rule. So just like the nauseating and depressing drug warnings that us old folks have to endure during the evening news, Twitter's response is not very satisfying. Given all those warnings, a cautious person would never take the stuff.
Facebook has copped out completely. When a post said "When the looting starts, the shooting starts," Facebook should have recognized that such statements incite violence. They did not, even in light of numerous employees' disgust over the posts. That is why this columnist does not Facebook or Tweet. I follow Danny Trejo's line in his cult movie "Machete." He says "Machete don't Tweet."
One last word on unringing the bell. No matter how apologetic the response, no matter how many mea culpas are expressed, no matter how sincere the promise for better behavior may be, the bell cannot be unrung. For example, when a local elected official posts a well-written commentary on supporting the police that was written by an anonymous person, good judgement would have asked, "who is anonymous?" Is the writer a union shop steward, someone who lost a loved one who was protecting the citizens or someone who doesn't want to be de-funded? Judging from the response to the first post, which ranged from hateful threats to great praise, a little research would have been in order before that bell was rung. Anonymous stuff may be worthy of publication, but it may not. Sometimes, when there is smoke, there is fire. Sometimes just a smoke machine.
One thing is certain. During the next five months, political methane gas will explosively multiply. Let's think about what we hear or see and reject anyone who espouses hate or incites violence. Frankly, I don't care what one candidate thinks about another. Don't insult my intelligence and ask me to vote for you because your opponent is a bad person. Ask me to vote for you because you are restrained enough not to need to unring the bell.