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Does Free Speech Free You From Accountability?

In April of this year, there was a bit of controversy over a memo from the Department of Homeland Security warning of the increased risk posed by right-wing extremist groups. Driven by the declining condition of the economy and the sense of social change exemplified by the presidency of Barack Obama, the analysts felt like it was likely that extremists would use violence to take out their frustrations.

At the time, conservatives attacked the report as political posturing by Obama to equate conservatism with terrorism. But in the last few weeks, we have seen that Homeland Security knew what it was talking about.

First, there was the murder of physician George Tiller, a long time target of antiabortion activists, as he was one of the very few doctors who performed late abortions. Tiller was shot while attending church, and the suspect in the killing, Scott Roeder, claimed that more attacks are being planned.

This was followed by the June 10 shooting at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, where 88-year-old James W. von Brunn walked in with a rifle and killed security guard Stephen Johns. von Brunn is a well-known white supremacist who runs a web site where he published his anti-Semitic writings. In one of the most unintentionally hilarious quotes I’ve read in a long time, a Washington Post article on the shooting quoted another white supremacist as saying he was upset because von Brunn “made the respectable white separatist community look bad.”

And let’s not forget the July 2008 shooting spree at a Unitarian church in Knoxville. James Adkisson received a life sentence for killing two people. I want to focus on Adkisson for a moment because he got the Knoxville News to publish his explanation for his actions, where he declared that “there is a vast left-wing conspiracy in this country & these liberals are working together to attack every decent & honorable institution in the nation, trying to turn this country into a communist state.”

Is it any surprise that books from Bill O’Reilly, Bernard Goldberg, and Sean Hannity were found in his home? These are the kinds of comments that are served up on their programs on a daily basis. Adkisson’s note specifically mentioned Goldberg’s book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America as something of a checklist for the kinds of people he wanted to kill.

For a man who loves the spotlight as much as Goldberg, he was curiously silent about the revelation that he had inspired someone to shoot up a church. How typical.

Time and again, we see conservative commentators like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, and Michael Savage stoke the flames of intolerance with rhetoric designed to whip their audience into a frenzy by capitalizing on their emotional vulnerabilities. For example, Bill O’Reilly talked about George Tiller nearly thirty times on his program, and always referred to him as “Tiller the baby killer.”

Yet when somebody gets takes their incendiary statements to heart and hurts people, they claim they played no role, and wrap themselves in the cloak of free speech. But they are misrepresenting what the right to free speech means.

Free speech protections guarantee that you can speak your mind without government censorship. It does not mean you should not be held responsible for the results of your words and actions. There are plenty of court cases where a defendant was not directly responsible for the crime, but is charged because they helped to facilitate the activity. Should people in the media, who have a reach of millions of people, be held to a similar standard?

I suppose the answer depends on whether you believe the media can really influence people’s behavior. In the high-profile crimes I mentioned, perhaps they were mentally ill and would have committed their crimes regardless of the presence of right-wing media.

But if repeated exposure to a message or image had no impact, advertising and public relations would not hold such critical positions in our society, we would not hear the same twelve songs in heavy rotation on the radio, and we may not have gone to war in Iraq.

The fact is, being bombarded with a particular message can alter your thought process. Think of how the percentage of American who support torture has steadily risen since 2001, as we have been repeatedly told about how it may be distasteful, but necessary for our protection. Or, to provide a lighter example, how many of you have memorized a song or advertising jingle that you hate simply because it’s been played so many times?

A follow up to a previous column: A few weeks ago, I mentioned an ACLU lawsuit against Metro schools over access to LGBT sites. The school system was using an internet filter program that automatically blocked sites identified as LGBT. On June 4, the company that administers the filtering software, Education Networks of America, announced it was changing its settings to allow students to visit LGBT web sites. Chalk this up as a victory for LGBT students, and kudos to the ACLU for taking up this issue.

From “Blackout” for 6/15/09 by Anthony Rucker


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