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REFLECTIONS: The First Amendment

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Having been in the news business for most of my life, I am a First Amendment absolutist. I believe that the framers of the First Amendment intended it to be the first addition to the new Constitution because they thought it was that important. Read in its entirety, it is the heart and soul of the unique American right of revolution. It separates thought from theocracy and guarantees the right to express those thoughts, and rally others to peaceful action.

Thus, I believe the First Amendment means exactly what it says - "Congress shall make NO law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..." And that has been taken to mean that no jurisdiction, state or local, may shut us up without real and just cause, like shouting "fire" in a crowded theater when there is no fire.

But my fundamentalist support of the First Amendment has been a bit shaken, to say the least, when I hear the speech of Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin and the other political mouths who call themselves journalists.

I can hear you saying, why are you picking on right-wingers? Well, the left-wingers, like Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow are critical of conservatives, Republicans and the right-wing talkers but they are not vicious or haters and they do not make their living by deliberately inciting people to play out their anger, often in a dangerous ways.

Nor am I criticizing conservative pundits and anchors working for outfits like Fox News, any more than I am supporting more liberal commentators for MSNBC; neither are fair and balanced, although the Fox News people pretend to be.

They are part of the news business and throughout American history, the nation has enjoyed a vigorous, and sometimes infuriating give and take between right and left. Our greatest presidents, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, were ridiculed by the contemporary press even during wartime.

I wish reporters were better at their jobs; they are too often uninformed and without purpose. As a veteran and experienced reporter who learned my craft through formal education and practiced it from the ground (the police beat) up (the White House), I was trained and subjected to editing that insisted on fairness and accuracy. So I could criticize the talkers as not real journalists.

But the First Amendment protects the rights of any citizen, not just those of us with press credentials. The speeches of entertainers passing as journalists is "protected speech," whether we like it or not. Indeed, with the internet and the proliferation of blogging, who is to say what or who is a journalist?

But "free" speech does not mean the same as "license." There are limits to what I can write, such as laws against libel and civil statutes protecting against slander. And there may be consequences, even when taking advantage of the First Amendment.

For example, while the amendment also guarantees "the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances," Dr. Martin Luther King was jailed for violating local laws limiting that right; he was, indeed, disturbing the peace. Dr. King understood that was the price one paid for an act of civil disobedience. So there may be a price for taking the First Amendment as a license to say anything about anyone.

Should there be a price, some consequences for Bill O'Reilly's repetitious rant against Kansas abortionist, Dr. George Tiller? At least two-dozen times on his Fox television talk show, O'Reilly, attacked Tiller with incendiary language, accusing him of being a "baby killer," who "will execute babies for $5,000," and "has killed thousands of babies...without explanation."

It might have been an act of journalism to find out if there was an explanation, but O'Reilly did nothing of the kind. Without "the other side of the story," someone may have taken O'Reilly at his word: "If we allow Dr. George Tiller...to continue..." I don't know if O'Reilly's words caused action. Tiller's killer hasn't said. But incendiary language with implied calls for illegal action, some of it based on lies or half-truths, is not always protected speech, as we shall see.

Glenn Beck predicted without reason that President Obama is building "concentration camps," and that "we might be heading toward a totalitarian state." I don't know if Glenn Beck's baseless ranting that President Obama was going to "take away your guns," led Richard Poplawski to kill three Pittsburgh police officers who, he believed, were trying to confiscate his weapons. Poplawski, a white supremacist, had come to believe Obama was planning to crack down on gun ownership.

I think it ominously important that these recent killings, including the one at the United States Holocaust Museum that was perpetrated by an admittedly disturbed individual, James von Brunn, who was an obsessed, white racist who hated Obama and Jews. And racism, which still infects this nation, has played a major role in the unusually vituperative and personal attacks on Obama that the talkers have encouraged.

In South Carolina, a prominent Republican figure suggested Michelle Obama is the daughter of a gorilla. Another Republican joked that Obama will tax aspirin tablets "because it's white and works." Such incidents, along with the usual non-apologies, have become too numerous to list.

It's true such speech, however stupid and nasty, is protected by the First Amendment. But it is intended to provoke more racism and hatred toward government and the law. So at the very least, one would think that these strict constructionist conservatives, like George Will, David Brooks and Charles Krauthammer, would condemn such racism, such incendiary and dangerous lies.

Do they believe that Obama is at once a socialist, communist and fascist? Or that he was not born in the United States? When Fox News commentator Shepard Smith, alone among conservatives, ventured some doubts about the "amped up" people who are "getting their guns out," he was inundated with vicious insults, many racially charged. Rather, there were howls of protest from the paranoid right when a Department of Homeland Security report accurately predicted an increase in far right extremism.

Did you hear any conservative object when Limbaugh joked that men in uniform, given only two bullets, would use them on Nancy Pelosi? If the worst happens, where will the blame lie?

One of the most prominent Supreme Court decisions supporting the First Amendment right of free speech, in 1969, involved one Clarence Brandenburg, an Ohio Ku Klux Klan leader who was convicted in 1966, of advocating violence in violation of the state law against "criminal syndicalism," a catch-all, anti-communist statute.

He had denounced "niggers," "Jews," and called for "revegeance," and a march on Washington. The liberal Supreme Court of Chief Justice Earl Warren overturned his conviction on the grounds that the criminal syndicalism law "violated the First Amendment...because it broadly prohibited the mere advocacy of violence rather than the constitutionally unprotected incitement to imminent lawless action." [Emphasis added].

Let me repeat, as the case was summed up in the law books. "...government cannot punish inflammatory speech unless it is directed to inciting and likely to incite imminent lawless action." O'Reilly, Beck and others would deny they intended such things. But I'll bet the Law and Order DAs could find a way to prosecute.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine: Tree House


Comments

I have often wondered why those who outright lie are allowed to get away with it. Especially, as you pointed out, when the lies are incendiary.

Add to the vile bilge from the far right the danger from the power of the NRA in Washington and the proliferation of guns of all caliber.

Incredible as it may seem our current governor, who replaced Janet Napolitano, just signed a bill allowing guns to be carried in establishments where liquor is served. The insanity of this bill says that a gun totin' nutcase can't drink if he has a gun. Right! How long do you think it will be before we have a real western shoot-out?

Not defending your governor, Darlene but it's only those with concealed weapon permits and you don't get those without classes and background checks. Since I happen to have one (although I almost never carry), I understand the problem of someone who does, and hates to leave that gun in a car potentially to be stolen. It's a sticky wicket issue without a doubt.

On the freedom of speech, I agree totally. It's frustrating to hear some of what these people encourage and wonder how they get away with it. Before Fox, there was some kind of protection from the corporate interests but now we have people like Beck who can say anything and make a lot of money for doing it. They can be ignorant and the ignorant think they know something simply because they are on a network. It's as much the fault of the consumer as the one putting it out though. We have to be informed and too many of us don't want to be.

I keep wondering when these guys who baselessly make charges (Beck) or inflame emotions (Limbaugh and O'Reilly) are going to be called to account. The murderer of Dr. Tiller who shot him in church(!) is an example of someone who has probably been listening to anti abortion rants for years. The condemnation of his actions by pro-lifers was underwhelming.

Remember the Rwandan Genocide where tribal members were stirred up by radio speakers who inflamed Hutus to violence against the Tutsis? I think these rants were government sponsored, but nevertheless the result was the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.

Words do have an effect. I think what is happening now is the cheapening of public discourse, as the screamers pander to people's widespread prejudices. They are making money doing it, so why would they stop?

I wish Dr.Tiller's family would start speaking out publicly; we need people to call out these unprincipled panderers to the lowest common denominator.

"Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose." -- Me and Bobby McGee

I think people with nothing left to lose can be dangerous, unstable animals and we have lots of them in this country. I think the likes of the talking heads and AIG execs should be worried.

Then there is Nixon's legacy. Only in my sixties did I learn there was a "Student" bad guy list. Now we have the legacy of Bush.

This a terribly hard issue. This country has always had demagogues. And the vicious racism and eliminationism in political debates is NOT unique to the present.

What is somewhat (but not entirely) new is the degree of amplification this stuff gets from corporate entities/media empires whose purpose is not political -- they just find it profitable to sell us Limbaugh and Beck. It's cynical and that's as undermining of our democracy as the crazed content.

But we survived William Randolph Hearst, so we may survive Fox and Murdoch ...

Saul: Thanks so much for this post. The quality of journalism even among actual journalists has fallen to new lows in the last 3 decades.

Where are the reporters who remember the Who, What, Where,
When and How questions that are essential to good reporting?

As to your point about the right wingnut media: I am more troubled by the masses that listen than the few idiots that push their mean spirited ideologies. It's effortless to not listen to or watch their shows.

A comment to Darlene and Rain: Darlene, we live in AZ and completely agree with your point. Our legislature is less than worthless.

Rain: I owned a handgun and a permit to carry a concealed weapon at one point in my life many years ago. I would not ever consider bringing one into a bar. It's the gun owner's problem to store the gun safely and not that of the patron's of the bar. Common sense tells you that handguns and whiskey do not mix.


Rich

How about "Inciting to Riot" and yelling "fire!" in a crowded theater? There are legal as well as moral reasons why such behavior is considered unacceptable.
If we continue to allow riot-mongers like Orielly to broadcast their messages of hate we are risking civil unrest and (eventually rioting)
Distubing the peace is a crime and should be prevented.

The last time I heard, Rich, there had not been a single crime committed by a registered concealed weapon owner. Now maybe that's changed but the ones I have known who have them are not at risk of getting drunk when they are armed (nor hopefully would they leave a bar and drive after being drunk). There are always going to be guns in bars though as many people carry who couldn't or wouldn't get a permit. If it was a mistake though, likely that will show up unfortunately in violence and what I said above will be proven wrong. I personally wouldn't carry many places period including a mall just because of the weight of a gun, my tiny purse, and my feeling that using one in public is highly risky getting yourself in legal trouble...

Yes, the first amendment protects the rights of the individual citizen. But does it equally protect the right of the corporations that have gained CORPORATE PERSONHOOD, the right equal to the individual citizen but without the responsibilities? Yes, it does.

It is up to each individual citizen to Google CORPORATE PERSONHOOD to learn how the corporation has gained the power under the law that was originally intended to be allowed to each individual citizen,

Now the corporation cannot be held accountable as the individual citizen can under our laws and yet its CORPORATE PERSONHOOD status gives it rights up and beyond those intended when the corporation was first begun--as a temporary entity which was to serve the public good in this country and then be disbanded when its purpose was ended.

It has gained so much power over the years that no individual citizen has a clue as to how to cut the corporation's stranglehold.

Citizens say, "The corporation is too powerful. There is nothing we can do about it." That is true
until we rise up and take back the rights that the Bill of Rights intended each citizen to have. So until we take back the rights of citizens which have been usurped by CORPORATE PERSONHOOD we will forever be at the mercy of the all powerful corporation that oe exercises its power worldwide.

First, find out what CORPORATE PERSONHOOD is and what it means to the individual citizens in this country. Then reach out to your contacts, your legislators and congressmembers and insist that the rights of the invidiual citizen are no longer dampened by this corporate
takeover. Do it now.

Yes, the first amendment protects the rights of the individual citizen. But does it equally protect the right of the corporations that have gained CORPORATE PERSONHOOD, the right equal to the individual citizen but without the responsibilities? Yes, it does.

It is up to each individual citizen to Google CORPORATE PERSONHOOD to learn how the corporation has gained the power under the law that was originally intended to be allowed to each individual citizen,

Now the corporation cannot be held accountable as the individual citizen can under our laws and yet its CORPORATE PERSONHOOD status gives it rights up and beyond those intended when the corporation was first begun--as a temporary entity which was to serve the public good in this country and then be disbanded when its purpose was ended.

It has gained so much power over the years that no individual citizen has a clue as to how to cut the corporation's stranglehold.

Citizens say, "The corporation is too powerful. There is nothing we can do about it." That is true
until we rise up and take back the rights that the Bill of Rights intended each citizen to have. So until we take back the rights of citizens which have been usurped by CORPORATE PERSONHOOD we will forever be at the mercy of the all powerful corporation that exercises its power worldwide.

First, find out what CORPORATE PERSONHOOD is and what it means to the individual citizens in this country. Then reach out to your contacts, your legislators and congressmembers and insist that the rights of the invidiual citizen are no longer dampened by this corporate
takeover. Do it now.

Rain: I think you are forgetting about the now infamous case in Flagstaff where the individual was convicted of murder after shooting a man whose dogs threatened him in the national forest. That man, the last I heard, is up for an appeal on the charges, but he was convicted.

Understand this: I appreciate the right to bear arms, but know from military and personal experience, that often the people who carry them are ill equipped emotionally to do so.

We have way too many guns in our country and that's a fact. Statistics show that every year.

So again: how would carrying a concealed weapon into a bar help the situation?

Rich

I really enjoyed what you post I was doing my assignment and I read what you wrote. There is a lot to say, but we need to understand what each word in the First Amendment mean not just to have as a logo or..again I really respect each word you had wrote.

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