Free-speech fretters overreact
10/4/2001 12:00:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg
Personally, I am outraged that The New York Times is censoring me. They've consistently refused to publish even one of my columns. The Washington Post has also chosen to stomp all over my First Amendment rights with their jackboots. Time, Newsweek, U.S. News: these are just newsletters for the brown-shirted loathers of liberty!
Of course, I'm just kidding. These publications and, sadly, many others have decided that they don't want to print my column for reasons having nothing to do with the First Amendment. We call the people responsible "editors" not "censors."
Why is this so hard to understand?
Cynthia Cotts, a writer for the Village Voice, objects to an atmosphere where "right-wing pundits denounce their counterparts on the left as madmen and enemies-from-within." She warns: "Something is burning this week, but it's not the site of the former World Trade Center. It's what's left of the First Amendment - and every self-respecting journalist should sign up for the rescue mission."
Funny I don't smell anything burning, but I do smell something that normally belongs in a cow pasture. Amid all of the hullabaloo, I've yet to hear of a single example of the (ital) government (end ital) abridging the right to free speech since the tragedy of Sept. 11.
Free-speech fretters claim that the firing of two columnists from two small newspapers, The Daily Courier in Grants Pass, Ore., and the Texas City Sun, is an example of free speech rights being curtailed. Others claim that the First Amendment is being victimized because Bill Maher, host of "Politically Incorrect," may have his show canceled because he inappropriately called American forces "cowards."
Additionally, National Review Online, the Web magazine I edit, recently declined to run two columns by Ann Coulter, a conservative columnist I used to be quite friendly with. In response, Coulter, a self-described "constitutional lawyer," complained on "Politically Incorrect" that "We're repealing the First Amendment."
Here's the hitch: The First Amendment has nothing to do with any of this. Here's the relevant constitutional passage: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech or of the press."
Did I miss some legislation banning "Politically Incorrect" or Ann Coulter's column?
If I come to your house and insist that you let me hang a giant poster of Osama bin Laden - or Fidel Castro or Mickey Mouse - from your living room window and you refuse, have I been censored? Of course not. Newspapers, magazines and private citizens all have the same right to say - or not to say - whatever they want.
Indeed, few of the free-speech hand-wringers are capable of seeing this crucial distinction. One person who is capable of understanding this difference is David Talbot, the editor of Salon magazine. He's concerned about what he considers to be a herd mentality bent on punishing dissenters, like the Texas City Sun columnist who was fired for writing, "What we are stuck with is a crippled president. He's not a leader. He's a puppet."
Talbot doesn't claim the government has censored anybody, but he does suggest that the government may be setting a censorial atmosphere. He points to recent comments made by White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. Responding to Bill Maher's remark about American troops being cowardly, Fleischer told the press, "Americans need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is." Talbot calls this a "creepy Orwellian pronouncement."
I don't see how it's Orwellian; nevertheless, Talbot's point is serious one. But I for one welcome what a lot of free-speech fetishists denounce. What's so bad about an atmosphere that requires dissenters - from the right (like Coulter) or from the left (like Maher) - to think twice about what they write? What Talbot might call a censorial atmosphere I call a new spirit of social responsibility.
I've always believed that just because you have the right to say something doesn't mean you should say it. I have the right to scream the N-word in the middle of Broadway, but does that mean it's a good thing if I do it? I believe there's a constitutional right to burn the American flag, but does that mean we should applaud someone who sets the stars and bars ablaze at a New York fireman's funeral?
So far it seems that only two columnists have lost their jobs for criticizing the U.S. government. But since Sept. 11 there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of columns and columnists critical of the government.
Maybe the lesson here isn't that the culture is banning "dissent," as Cotts and Talbot believe. Maybe the culture has concluded - in the context of 6,000 murdered Americans and a war on the horizon - that frivolous, irresponsible or just plain stupid criticism will not have the popular currency it did just a month ago. To me, that's progress, not censorship.