[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