It's time we defended freedom of speech

Posted: Monday, June 15, 2009

Last month, I reported on a list of people banned from Great Britain compiled by Britain's Home Secretary Jacqui Smith.

The list included Michael Savage, host of the third-most-listened-to radio talk show in America. Savage was listed along with terrorists, murderers and advocates of violence.

My protest was that a man whose job it is to entertain and raise the ire of listeners from time to time was being labeled a dangerous threat to the people of Britain.

Having taken an academic degree in Britain, and having a true love for the nation, I was perplexed and frustrated by this.

I now wonder whether freedom of speech is diminishing here, too, as might be Americans' willingness to take others' words in context. Why won't people stand up for others' rights to express opinions without being beaten into the ground by governments?

Consider this often-quoted remark by current Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. In a speech made years ago, she said, "I would hope that a wise Latino woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

At first glance, the statement seemed what some prominent conservatives have labeled "reverse racism." Among them are Rush Limbaugh and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has taken to Twitter.

Gingrich tweeted that Sotomayor's comments were racist and so she should not be considered for the high court.

How can we assert commonality to Savage, Sotomayor, Limbaugh and Gingrich? It's simple: They're all human.

Savage's job is to express his views on the airwaves. He sometimes says outrageous things, but that's why he has a huge following. If his words were inciting riots, the FCC would have fined the daylights out of the stations that carry him.

Limbaugh and Gingrich likely thought exactly what I did when I first read Sotomayor's statement: What if I had said that I would hope a white Southern male with his experiences would reach better legal conclusions than a Latina? I would have been forced out of consideration for anything less than the unemployment line.

Upon reflection, Gingrich later said he doesn't consider her a racist.

Maybe that's because he got the chance to learn the context of her remarks. Sotomayor referred to the wisdom of the all-white Supreme Court that delivered the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that overturned public school segregation.

Sotomayor is human and, thus, fallible. Her remarks will not stop her from being confirmed. Nor should they.

I would hope that we would all defend as reasonable any speech that does not defame, libel or maliciously try to incite genuine harm, no matter who is speaking or writing.

Many conservatives growl about MSNBC's Keith Olbermann. His TV show includes a segment that labels someone as the "worst person in the world."

Those are pretty strong words! But half the time the segment is funny, and even when it seems vicious, I would fight for his right to make it part of his show.

In the case of Savage, I have been shocked at the failure of more voices to step forward to defend him against Smith's decision to ban him from Britain.

Moreover, when Smith announced this week that she was stepping down from her post, hardly an American newspaper so much as referred to the Savage controversy.

I know conservative talk show hosts, liberal writers and others, who, for various reasons, don't like Savage.

But they are missing the point. One day it is Savage who is on watch lists or banned from entering a great nation. If left unchecked, it might next be one of those people who quietly sat back and watched Savage have to fight this fight alone.

It's time we defend freedom of speech, including "tweets," be it ultra-liberal or ultra-conservative. It's also time we start putting comments into context and giving people the opportunity to defend their statements - even if that means they're saying, "I really didn't mean that."

• Matt Towery was chairman of Newt Gingrich's political organization for several years. Towery can be e-mailed at mtowery@insideradvantage.com.



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