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News ::
Lamenting the death of free speech
02 Oct 2001
The nation's loss has been great. Sadness and anger run deep. But in silencing dissent we risk an even greater loss than life itself. As Ben Franklin said, "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
Lamenting the death of free speech


by Tom Brazaitis

In the days immediately following the terrorist at tacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, corporate executives at Clear Channel Communications, a conglomerate of 1,213 radio stations, began compiling and distributing to station managers a list of songs that might offend listeners in the wake of the tragedy.

Before long, the list grew to more than 160 songs, including "Bridge Over Troubled Water" by Simon and Garfunkel, "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin, "New York, New York" by Frank Sinatra and "Imagine," John Lennon's ode to peace:

Imagine there's no countries.

It isn't hard to do.

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too.

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace . . .

Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, responded by taking out a full-page ad in the New York Times that said simply, "Imagine all the people living life in peace."

The radio executives were not alone in their zeal to protect Americans from disturbing thoughts. ABC's Washington station and two other ABC affiliates ordered Bill Maher's show, "Politically Incorrect," off the air temporarily after Maher said on his Sept. 17 show that, unlike the suicide terrorists, "we have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away."

At the White House, presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer condemned Maher's words and warned, "The reminder is to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and that this is not a time for remarks like that. It never is."

Watch what we say?

No doubt the deranged hijackers who killed thousands would have been pleased to know that they had also killed free speech in a nation where the right to express an opinion, especially one critical of the government, is at the core of what it means to be an American.

Robert Jensen, a tenured professor of journalism at the University of Texas, felt the wrath of his college president for stating his views in the Houston Chronicle. In a column that expressed horror and sadness over the "reprehensible and indefensible" attacks, Jensen went on to say, "But this act was no more despicable than the massive acts of terrorism - the deliberate killing of civilians for political purposes - that the government has committed during my lifetime. . . ."

Larry Faulkner, the University of Texas president, responded with a letter to the paper that said, "Jensen is not only misguided, but has become a fountain of undiluted foolishness on issues of public policy. . . ."

Jensen did not answer Faulkner's tirade, saying only, "I can't respond to someone saying I'm foolish. That's not an argument, it's an insult."

Republican legislators in Missouri threatened to withhold funding from the Missouri School of Journalism after the news director of the campus TV station banned the wearing of flag pins and red-white-and-blue ribbons by the station's reporters.

"Our news broadcasts are not the place for personal statements of support for any cause - no matter how deserving the cause seems to be," the news director was quoted as saying. "Our job is to deliver the news as free from outside influences as possible."

No such inhibitions troubled the cable news networks that incorporated a flag in their on-screen logos for the attack coverage. Fox News Channel anchor Brit Hume wore a flag pin and NBC's Tim Russert donned a patriotic ribbon.

Missing from the networks' 'round-the-clock expert analyses by former secretaries of state and military generals were the voices of skepticism.

The San Francisco Chronicle quoted Steve Rendall of the media watchdog organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting: "The pundit offering is one-sided. Where are the experts on international law? Where are the experts who might take Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi seriously? The peace experts? You might think that's a joke, but there are people who study these things as seriously as war."

Fearful of being labeled terrorist sympathizers, the media went overboard in their display of patriotism and reduced skeptical voices to a whisper.

The nation's loss has been great. Sadness and anger run deep. But in silencing dissent we risk an even greater loss than life itself. As Ben Franklin said, "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Brazaitis is a senior editor in The Plain Dealer's Washington bureau.
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