Friday, November 9, 2001

In these troubled times, the First Amendment Free Speech guaranty has become a glorified refuge for some scoundrels.

The Emmy awards program was postponed twice because of the terrorist attacks and the American war effort beginning in Afghanistan, respectively. The festivities finally took place this week amid criticism as to the propriety of having an awards show right now.

I see nothing wrong with the ceremony going forward since we are all trying to return to our normal lives. But Bryce Zabel, chairman of the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences, chose to justify the event in loftier terms.

“We’re going to be seen on television in 90 countries. If there is a theme to the show, it’s that the images that people will see will demonstrate two great American traditions: the freedom to assemble and freedom of expression. People will say whatever they want. That’s what this is about,” said Mr. Zabel.

One has to wonder just what astronomical percentage of the Hollywood and New York entertainment glitterati take themselves this seriously. Does Mr. Zabel really expect us to believe the airing of the show was about vindicating the First Amendment?

As it turns out, the old dollar bill may have had more to do with it than the Constitution. Commercials during the show yield big bucks for CBS, and the network apparently pays the Television Academy some $3 million for broadcasting the show. I’m all for capitalism at work, but let’s not cheapen the First Amendment by throwing it around so loosely. Yet that’s a fairly tame example. There are others, far worse.

Many in the blame-America-first cadre are much more adept at dispensing criticism than taking it. They are a tad displeased with the suggestion that they aren’t displaying exemplary patriotism. They insist that dissent is the true mark of a patriot and that their critics are chilling their speech.

One example hits close to home. Following a column I wrote criticizing the choice of pacifism in the wake of the terror attacks, I was accused of advocating the suppression of speech of all those who disagreed with me. I understood why someone would take issue with my opinion, but I was astonished at the assertion that my criticism constituted an attempt to suppress speech.

There are other examples. In an editorial a constitutional law professor referred to Barbara Lee, the congresswoman who cast the sole dissenting vote against authorizing the use of force against the terrorists, as a hero. The professor implied that those criticizing Mrs. Lee were violating her First Amendment rights. “It’s too early to tell how free speech will weather the crisis.” He continued, “Free speech protects dissent that strikes to the very heart of our national belief in our own wisdom, innocence and merit.” But what does free speech protect dissent from, professor? Criticism? I think not. No one proposed that Mrs. Lee be denied her right to speak or vote against the war, for that matter. When we have this kind of sloppy invocation of the First Amendment from teachers of constitutional law, what can we expect from others?

This same phenomenon is occurring on campuses around the country. Certain university professors have been rather upset at criticism they’ve received for inflammatory remarks they made following the terrorist attacks. In one case, students heckled a professor who criticized U.S. foreign policy during a campus vigil. While the professors are not waving the flag, what do you suppose they are waving? That’s right, the First Amendment again, even though their speech is not being suppressed.

Isn’t it ironic we have those from the academic left raising First Amendment issues when so few of them have expressed similar outrage at oppressive speech codes that exist on an estimated two-thirds of college campuses in this nation? These pious professors have no problem outlawing speech that might offend someone.

Criticizing someone’s opinion is not censorship. The First Amendment does not guarantee freedom from criticism or heckling. Besides, if it did, those we criticize wouldn’t be able to criticize us for criticizing them. I guess they would just lock us up instead.

What is obviously going on here is that some who aren’t used to having their opinions challenged because they are always cloaked in the mantle of political correctness are hypocritically wrapping themselves in the First Amendment instead of defending their bizarre ideas on the merits. It is these intimidators, not their critics, who are trying to silence speech.

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