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June 19, 2006
Freedom Of Speech RIP?

Today's Washington Examiner editorial decries the pressures of political correctness and underscores how it undermines the very concept of free speech as well as freedom of religion. It takes a debate in DC over how homosexuality is perceived through secular and religious viewpoints and notes that the consequences of speech seem a bit one-sided:

Robert Smith, Roman Catholic and now-former Metro board member, believes homosexuality is a form of “deviancy.” Jim Graham, District of Columbia Council member, believes Smith’s beliefs are “ancient and archaic.” Graham’s views cost him nothing. Smith’s cost him his job.

Graham and Smith’s now-former boss, Maryland Gov. Bob Erhlich, should have said something like this: “I repudiate Smith’s views and find them disgusting, but it’s a free country and he can say whatever he thinks about any issue.” In a culture increasingly dominated by political correctness, however, such remarks would be derided.

So we have a fundamental issue: freedom of speech for Jim, but not for Bob. Thus the state of health of the First Amendment: You can say anything you want so long as it is politically correct. That’s the definition of “tolerance” practiced by officials like Graham, Erhlich and by many among America’s official and elite opinion-makers.

Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich fired Smith for airing his views on homosexuality, a rather extreme sanction for speaking out on a topic in a public debate. However, one has to remember that Smith was in fact a political appointee of Ehrlich's and served at his pleasure. That means that Smith had to understand that his comments would reflect back on Ehrlich and, depending on Ehrlich's position, would generate some sort of strong response.

I don't see that as a particularly compelling example of the PC urge stamping out free speech, but that dynamic has undeniably been in play for at least the last two decades. Campus speech codes are by far the best example of state- and privately-run institutions showing little tolerance for diversity in opinions and political stances, but it also goes throughout the entire culture of America. This may have reached its pinnacle in the convoluted and destructive regulations of the BCRA (McCain-Feingold), where political speech itself is not only not tolerated for its position but also for its timing and sourcing.

Somewhere along the line, people assumed a right to be free from being offended, a "right" that is diametrically opposed to free speech. A free political discourse will always offend someone, and sometimes it will offend a vast number of people. The solution for that is more free speech, not prior restraint or cultural pressures to shut up. Smith had to know that his appointment held him accountable for his representation of his political patron, but the rest of us are only responsible to ourselves. We need to assert the right of free speech in order to avoid the bonds that one political class would place on the rest of us -- regardless of the political orientation of that class.

UPDATE: CQ reader JD thinks that the global warming debate is a better example, and I'm inclined to agree.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 19, 2006 9:33 AM

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