(HOST) Commentator Bill Seamans has been thinking about the difference between free speech – and irresponsible rhetoric.
(SEAMANS) My attention was drawn to a Sunday article in the Washington Post that focussed on the truism that "words have consequences." It discussed the effect of inciteful comments in editorials and by talk show hosts – and how some might arouse extreme zealots to violence. The question suggested was whether the discussion about late abortion had been taken by certain commentators beyond legitimate criticism and had virtually demonized Dr. George Tiller.
The man accused of murdering Doctor Tiller claimed in a phone call from his jail cell that more such violence was planned as long as abortions remained legal. This, in turn, set up the question whether he was just seeking more publicity or whether he was referring to accomplices and an organized plan, all of which the FBI is investigating. Also, armed Federal Marshals are now protecting legal abortion clinics and doctors – it’s beginning to look like a scene in the Middle East where terrorists kill those they oppose and others must be protected by armed bodyguards. Words have consequences.
This observer’s hope is that the Dr. Tiller tragedy stimulates a significant debate over the level and quality of criticism within the context of free speech. What is legitimate? What is slanderous ridicule? What are overt and covert calls for violence? Will a now passive audience be aroused beyond the occasional letter to the editor demanding a rise in the quality of criticism? And very importantly, will parents become worried over the civics of negativism that their children are being taught by certain public opinionators.
It’s inevitable, it seems, that stories like this raise concern over the safety of President Barack Obama and his family as hate-mongers become more strident. The Secret Service and the FBI will not comment on investigations of threats against Obama. But Secret Service spokesman Malcolm Wiley did say that all threats are taken seriously "no matter where the threat comes from." His words, indeed, are the ultimate acknowledgment that "words have consequences."
Editors for years have labored over the weight of the opinions they publish but lately extremely irresponsible criticism has either become out of their control or, as some conspiracy theorists allege, is deliberately encouraged by media powers above the editors’ authority.
Finally, should we ask whether we all should shed our comfortable apathy regarding a kind of terrorism here at home that is hiding behind the sacred privilege of free speech? Is it time to speak up loudly because "words have consequences?"