Sunday, January 22, 2012

Gene Policinski: Loving free speech is easy, until we hate what somebody said

  Does anybody have a sense of humor anymore?

  The First Amendment’s role in protecting free speech is to shelter remarks that most people don’t like. Words that everybody finds acceptable need no defense.

  In between those two polar points is the daily give-and-take of discourse. The verbal tumult of braggadocio, insults, satire and plain speaking can pass the time of day or give rise to what lawyers and Supreme Court justices politely call “robust discussion.”

  There’s no First Amendment requirement for civility, politeness or any constitutional test for relevance, deep meaning or common sense. Still, most of us use the freedom to speak to say something worth hearing.

  So why is the marketplace of ideas so increasingly jammed with incivility, with responses ranging from the testy-and-snide to the vulgar-and-vile, and even the threatening-and-dangerous? Web anonymity may be a factor, but the trend cuts across more methods and media than that.

  Case in point: What began as a traditional wager between mayors of cities with NFL teams in the playoffs, in this case Denver (the Broncos) and Boston (the New England Patriots), has slipped into a frothy back-and-forth about … beer.

  The “bet”-a-tete turned a bit more serious a few days ago when Boston Mayor Tom Menino slammed Colorado’s beer offerings. A mere “hop,” skip and jump later came a snippy retort about beer sales from Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, and a reported e-storm of critical comments between ardent defenders of the two metropoli and their respective microbrewers.

  Shift to Minnesota, where a mixed-martial-arts championship fighter and assistant wrestling coach said he had been placed on paid administrative leave by his school district for insulting remarks in a TV interview he made last month about President Obama.

  Including the term “glass-ectomy,” the coach used figurative imagery that although clearly vulgar is just as clearly fantasy and his personal view. Nonetheless, the coach’s slam at a martial-arts match in Denver prompted a parent at his school to complain. Despite the coach’s never mentioning his school — and despite this country’s protection for political speech — officials ordered him to take time off.

  Now we turn to Iowa and a much more serious situation. University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom, along with his family, is receiving death threats, virulent and disgusting anti-Semitic faxes, and harassing phone calls. Bloom also is being pilloried statewide and beyond, in print, on TV, and online. Why? Because of an essay he wrote in the December Atlantic magazine about the good and bad aspects of Iowa. It hit the newsstands just as national attention was ramping up for the Iowa caucuses.

  Bloom says he meant only to portray the true state of affairs in his state. Critics say he did so with a snide tone and snarky emphasis on the negative. The debate over appropriateness and accuracy can rage on — that’s fine. But the threats and attacks against Bloom are troubling aftershocks over a 5,600-word essay on the Hawkeye State.

  Sally Mason, president of the University of Iowa, said in a news release on Dec. 15, “I strongly disagree with and was offended by Professor Bloom’s portrayal of Iowa and Iowans.” The statement went on to lavish kind words on the state and its residents. So far, Bloom says, even though the university knows of the death threats, it has made  no mention of his First Amendment rights, or made even a nod to the idea that a university should be, above anywhere else, a safe harbor for the expression of discordant views.

  Instead, there’s chatter through the state about policies to warn professors about the “dangers” of self-expression on social networks and elsewhere, requests for copies of professors’ e-mails, and even a posting criticizing Bloom by some of his journalism department colleagues.

  Social and political commentary can inform, fuel outrage or spark needed discussion – sometimes all at once, a la Bloom. One person’s right to enrage today is another person’s right to enlighten tomorrow. Community leaders — including university presidents — have a duty to defend that concept, even when they disavow the content.

  Standing up for free speech is easy. Until it’s not.

  About the author: Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, is a veteran journalist whose career has included work in newspapers, radio, television and online.

  This article was published by the First Amendment Center.

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