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The Issue Of Free Speech In America

By James Donahue

The 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 dangerous times.

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.