The First Amendment has been getting a workout in recent weeks on two college campuses - the University of Florida and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill - where students are learning that free speech is a messy business.
The two cases, one involving a columnist at UNC and the other a political cartoonist at UF, have inflamed minority groups - Muslims and blacks, respectively - provoking protests and debate. That's the good news insofar as protest and debate are the currency of free speech.
What's not such good news is that the columnist was fired, while the Florida cartoonist has been condemned and threatened. Both students have been virtually abandoned by university officials, some of whom apparently are more concerned about burnishing their multiculti self-images than in demonstrating the importance of a founding principle that finds itself on increasingly shaky ground these days.
Exhibit A is Jillian Bandes, a former columnist for UNC's The Daily Tar Heel. Her column, which was intended to make a case for racial profiling in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, began hyperbolically: "I want all Arabs to be stripped naked and cavity-searched if they get within 100 yards of an airport."
Then she proceeded to quote several Arab students and a professor who said they wouldn't mind being searched. Some of them subsequently claimed their remarks had been taken out of context, an unprecedented development in journalism history. Bandes was fired.
One could make a strong argument that Bandes' column was silly, amateurish, lacking in taste, strident and ineffective. Being outrageous for the sake of outrage requires no special talent. Witness Howard Stern. But people have a clear and protected right to be both silly and amateurish.
Bandes' editor claimed that he fired her for "journalistic malpractice," for taking quotes out of context, not in response to pressure. Without contradicting him, I can only say that in 25 years with newspapers, I've never known anyone to be fired when a story's subjects didn't like the way quotes were used.
In Gainesville, Fla., where the First Amendment argument is more clear-cut, cartoonist Andy Marlette drew an image that has angered some black groups. Yes, a new generation has produced another Marlette. This one is the nephew of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and author, Doug Marlette, whose talent as an equal-opportunity offender apparently seeped into the family gene pool.