Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Chicagoland Syndication: When Free Speech Just Crosses the Line

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When Free Speech Just Crosses the Line

Free speech has never been more under assault. It has led to the firing of three top journalists: White House dean Helen Thomas, Octavia Nasr of CNN, and popular CNN talk host Rick Sanchez.

It has dominated the headlines with the threatened burning of a Quran (Islamic holy book) by a pastor in Gainesville, Fla.

And it’s before the U.S. Supreme Court, involving a father of a fallen U.S. Marine who was appalled when members of a nearby church decided to protest at his son’s funeral chanting hateful rhetoric about the war, gays and more.

The line that divides what is right and wrong on free speech is not as simply drawn as it once was when people would say you can say anything short of yelling “fire” in a crowded movie theater.

Today, it is so much more complicated. But is it because the issues have changed? Or, are we just giving the free speech of unpopular causes more play in the news media and in our daily discussions?

Thomas, Nasr and Sanchez are all victims of a political battle tied to the Middle East. And so were the threats by Pastor Terry Jones to burn the Quran.

But what about the protests at the burial ceremonies of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The father of a fallen marine sued members of a Kansas church when they showed up at his son’s funeral denouncing homosexuality. The marine was not gay, but the protesters decided to use the high profile burial as a podium to air their views nationally.

Protesters carried signs proclaiming “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “God hates you.”

As offensive as the sentiments are, chances are the Court will rule on the side of free speech. The U.S. Constitution doesn’t distinguish between good free speech and ugly free speech, although sometimes I wish they had.

There is something wrong with free speech when it is OK to scream ugly epitaphs at the grieving family of a man who sacrificed his life so that the protesters could speak. A society that says it is OK to burn a holy book like the Quran, or presumably even the Bible or Torah, and yet in the same breath in many cities around the country, you could be arrested, face a stiff fine and even be jailed for multiple convictions if you burn a pile of leaves in front of your home.

Come to think of it, I really liked the old days when burning leaves in front of a home was OK, and few people thought about hate speech or burning Qurans.

(Ray Hanania's Chicagoland column is distributed to several local newspapers including the Southwest News-Herald, the Lawndale News and the West Suburban Journal newspapers. If you would like to add his free Chicagoland column to your newspaper, email

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