Free speech means sometimes saying you're sorry

Posted: Oct 22, 2003 12:00 AM

Speak incorrectly and ye shall be toast.

So might go our lesson for the day as three high-profile figures recently have been taken down - their jobs lost or at risk - for saying something others considered offensive.

Rush Limbaugh's sudden departure from ESPN is well known by now. He was slammed and quickly resigned after opining that the media were giving Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb undeserved credit for his team's success because he's black. Whoosh, bye-bye Rush.

A few days ago, ESPN fired commentator Gregg Easterbrook from his weekly football column. Easterbrook, a senior editor at The New Republic, wrote about the gratuitously violent movie "Kill Bill Vol. 1" on his online Web log. He described Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax, which distributed the movie, and Michael Eisner, chairman of parent company Disney, which also owns ESPN, as "Jewish executives" who "worship money above all else."

Here's the relevant paragraph:

"Yes, there are plenty of Christian and other Hollywood executives who worship money above all else, promoting for profit the adulation of violence. Does that make it right for Jewish executives to worship money above all else by promoting for profit the adulation of violence? Recent European history alone ought to cause Jewish executives to experience second thoughts about glorifying the killing of the helpless as a fun lifestyle choice."

Words Easterbrook no doubt wishes he'd let simmer a few hours and then not posted. But words to end a career?

Easterbrook has apologized. His colleagues at the magazine and in the blogosphere have come to his defense, pointing to his considerable and respected body of work, as well as a history devoid of anti-Semitism. Even so, Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League called Easterbrook's apology "insufficient."

In a recent third case, Lt. Gen. William G. "Jerry" Boykin, an evangelical Christian military/intelligence officer, upset many in the Arab-American world when he told a church audience that his God was bigger than the God of the Muslim warlord he fought in Somalia 1993.

He also expressed the opinion that God put George W. Bush in office, that the reason Islamic extremists hate us is because "we're a Christian nation," and that our "spiritual enemy will only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus."

Off with his stripes! The Interfaith Alliance has urged Bush to issue a reprimand and the Council on American-Islamic Relations is demanding that Boykin be reassigned from his Pentagon position as deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence. Boykin's job includes hunting, among others, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Easterbrook, Limbaugh and Boykin clearly are not equivalent cases, but a common thread runs through all three: If you say something that offends a group (except for white males, of course), you're at risk of losing your livelihood.

Grown-ups might beg to differ with the substance of each man's remarks. Limbaugh may have been mistaken, though others share his opinion. Easterbrook may have lapsed into historically harmful stereotyping, for which he correctly apologized. And Boykin may be as wrong as Limburger cheese, but he surely has a right to speak in a church setting about his personal religious beliefs.

That these men's remarks have evoked such emotional responses suggests a censorious sensitivity that does not bode well for free speech. It takes a much bigger man and a more seasoned mind to tackle ideas on their merits - or to let stupidity die by its own dim lights - than it does to sic corporate thugs on those whose speech offends.

Freedom is sometimes messy and speech is imperfect. Sometimes we say stupid things, cross lines, step on toes. But the nice thing about America - and, yes, one of the reasons "they" hate us - is that we get to. We make a mistake, we correct it; we say something hurtful, we apologize; we say something stupid, we try harder and smarter.

And, unlike in some countries, we get to keep all our limbs.

Fareed Zakaria, writing for Newsweek, urged that Boykin be fired to prove to the Muslim world that the United States is not waging a religious war. As though aspiring terrorists will see the headline, slap their foreheads and exclaim: "Dang, Mohammad, didja see this? They fired Boykin! Those Americans are not so bad after all."

I'd rather that Boykin not be fired in order to prove to our enemies that we're not so thin-skinned after all, that by our governing laws we tolerate ideas not necessarily our own. That we are vigilant in protecting the thing that drives them wild - our freedom.