Opinion: Recent incidents put notions of free speech to the test

6/8/2017 | G. Michael Dobbs

Category: June

I had the pleasure and privilege of attending the annual Talkers magazine take radio conference in New York City last week. Talkers is the Bible for the talk radio industry and is owned by one of the smartest guys I know, Michael Harrison, a Longmeadow resident.

I have gone to this event thanks to Michael’s generosity many times and each one has been a great experience. I usually return with my head stuffed full of ideas.

This one was no exception.

The first speaker I saw was FOX News personality and syndicated radio host Sean Hannity. Hannity regularly participates in the Talker event and he has always comes across as a decent, thoughtful guy, although I tend not to agree with his politics.

Hannity has been under scrutiny from Media Matters of late for his comments about a conspiracy theory surrounding the murder of a Democratic National Committee staffer. His remarks have been seen as controversial enough to provoke an effort to force advertisers to abandon his show.

Hannity’s discussion with Harrison centered on the philosophical point that free speech shouldn’t be the subject of boycotts. Hannity has had a history of opposing boycotts of this nature whether on the left or right.

He believes that stifling free speech this way is harmful. It was an interesting discussion.

Here’s the question: should Hannity’s – and our own – free speech be affected by the expression of free speech by others? The controversy surrounding the truthfulness of Hannity’s reporting complicates that question.

The problem is free speech is a very demanding and unforgiving concept. Our Constitution protects it, except for certain issues, such as libel and, as the old example goes, shouting “Fire!” in a movie theater.

The discussion I saw in New York was in my head at the same time the issue of comedian Kathy Griffin and her foray into political satire was burning up social media. Griffin had been pictured holding what appeared to be a mask of President Donald Trump that had fake blood on it.

According to a press conference, Griffin is now under investigation by the Secret Service for what she called a comment on the remarks Trump made about Megyn Kelly during the campaign.

Griffin is known for envelope-pushing comedy. Part of what she does is to comment on people in power – largely show business celebrities – and does so in the same manner as her mentor the late Joan Rivers.

She clearly rolled the dice with the photo. Some people might have approved of it, but she must have known this would cause her trouble.

She has lost jobs since the photo made its rounds on social media. Trump, naturally, commented on it himself over Twitter saying it has hurt his children.

“A sitting president of the United States and his grown children and the first lady are personally trying to ruin my life forever,” she said during the press conference as reported by the New York Post.

Well, what did you expect?

I don’t approve what Griffin did. It was designed to be offensive to those people who support the president and problematic to those who wish to criticize Trump through the recitation of facts. Griffin likes to walk the line of acceptability in her comedy and this time her foot went over the line. She went too far and will be paying for it.

Her supporters have used remarks by musician and gun advocate Ted Nugent. Among his remarks about President Barack Obama, he said, “We need to ride into that battlefield and chop their [the Obama administration’s] heads off in November.” He also said, “If Barack Obama becomes the next president in November, again, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year.”

Nugent was a recent guest at the White House, by the way.

As awful as Nugent’s remarks were, as well as the stream of lynching images circulated through social media about Obama, the acid test was whether not they constituted a death threat toward a president. Apparently they did not, so instead they are just hateful, stupid free speech, as I’m sure Griffin’s image will be seen.

Free speech isn’t easy. It’s a messy institution at best. My feeling is if you see something you don’t like, don’t read it, watch it or listen to it. Everyone has the right to say something and everyone has the right to react, if they care, to it.

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