The Issue Of Free Speech In America
deplorable events in Tulsa have once more placed the issue of our First Amendment right to free speech in question. Many believe
the disturbed young man charged with gunning down U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a federal judge and at least 18 other people attending an
outdoor political rally was incited to commit this terrible act by the wave of anti-government and political right-wing extremist
chatter that has dominated the radio and television talk shows and the very halls of Congress.
The shock of what has happened appears to have changed the mood of the
nation, perhaps for the better. Voices from both Republican and Democratic sides of the political spectrum are calling for
an end to highly emotional rhetoric and a return to intelligent and respectful debate on the highly charged issues that are
being dealt with. Outspoken political commentator Keith Olbermann went on the air for a special commentary on Saturday, the
night of the shooting, to call for an end to the hate verbiage from shows like his own on both television and radio. He personally
apologized for statements he made that might have may have helped inflame national debate.
Indeed, we found some of the political messages preceding the 2010 mid-term
congressional elections especially disturbing. Tea Party Republican candidate Sharron Angle’s suggestion of “Second
Amendment remedies” and Sarah Palin’s infamous bulls eye map targeting certain Democratic candidates and including
Congresswoman Giffords stand out among the worst of the lot. But extremists like radio and-or television commentators Rush
Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly have been spewing their share of mental poison
and getting rich doing it for several years.
The Tucson shooting incident has not been the only apparent response
to this radical “call to arms.” Someone mailed three hate messages in explosive envelopes to government offices
in Washington and Maryland only last week. And federal authorities have been dealing with an alarming number of Americans
who have been answering a call to join a Muslim terrorist movement against the United States. These are surely unsettled and
As a life-long practicing journalist, I fear a possible over-reaction
to all of this in the form of laws prohibiting the rights of free expression of thought. While we all abhor radical hate speech
when we hear it, we must defend the right of people in America to express themselves without fear of reprisal.
This nation has tolerated hate speech since the days of the American
Revolution. We had it during the Mexican-American and Civil Wars. The Klu Klux Klan once marched on the streets of many of
our cities while calling for the blood of Negro Americans. We endured such figures as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch
hunt against communists in the 1950s, the civil rights movement that saw such figures as Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther
King murdered, and the Vietnam War opposition that led to the gunning down of students on the campus of Kent State. To our
disgrace, hate speech has been a part of who we are as a nation since the very beginning.
We can expect in the coming weeks to see new legislation proposed that
will make it illegal to make public statements, write or post displays that may incite violence or prejudicial action against
others. But the problem of legally identifying the difference between hate speech and a passionate political call for action
will be similar to determining the thin line between art and pornography. We all know it when we see or hear it, but passing
laws to prohibit one without affecting free expression can be a slippery slope.
Public speakers, journalists and especially editorial writers and political
commentators should not be looking over their shoulders and worried about having stepped over the line when making critical
remarks about the actions of those in high political office. Journalistic freedom is too important in this nation. In fairness,
however, we all must adhere to the old rule against shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. There are some things
that just should not be put in written or spoken word.
We call for cool heads during this time of mourning and heart-felt prayer
for all of the families and friends so deeply affected by this heinous act of violence.