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Nothing makes clear the sorry state of civics education in the United States than all of the kerfuffle over mosques and Korans. Here’s all you need to know: If it is political or religious speech in a public forum, then it is protected.
Simple, yes? But everyone gets it mixed up. Sarah Palin defended Dr. Laura Schlesinger after her series of on-air racial slurs but “refudiated” both the construction of a mosque and the burning of the Koran. Of course, Schlesinger’s speech is not protected because it is on a commercial forum. CBS Radio is a commercial network that receives funding from commercial sponsors. Neither the network nor its sponsors are required to give Schlesinger a platform. However, she is allowed to organize her own network to say whatever the heck she wants to anyone who wants to listen. Marty Peretz can be as hateful as he wants in the magazine that he owns, but no one is obliged to subscribe.
Usually, I write about price in terms of dollars and cents. Money is the medium that makes trade happen, but not all prices are denominated in dollars. There are other costs of freedom, ranging from a soldier’s life to the irritation of seeing flags of an enemy force that attacked our government flying proudly from people’s houses and public buildings .
Everyone likes to talk about how soldiers sacrifice for our freedom, and they do, and I don’t want to ignore that. But they aren’t the only people who fight for our freedoms; the Department of Defense isn’t the ACLU with nukes. There are lawyers, teachers, bloggers, artists, and regular people out there every day reminding us that we have freedoms and that they are precious. Educating people about their freedoms and allowing them to express them is hard work.
Freedom isn’t free, as the bumper sticker says, and in many cases, the price is being offended. I think burning a Koran is disrespectful and hateful. I also think NNIN t-shirts are tacky, people who fly Confederate flags are pathetic, and Sarah Palin’s political commentary is irritating. But I also know that all of these people have a right to annoy, upset, and hurt me. I’d rather have that than a government telling people how to practice religion, what to wear in public, and not to talk about politics. It’s better to live in a state of annoyance at one’s fellow citizens than in a state of fear.
And, of course, another price of freedom is paid by the people who express their opinions. They are often may be criticized, not congratulated – and rightly so, no matter how much they whine that they were only exercising their right to free speech. The ongoing conversation makes us greater in the long run than if we just accepted what someone on any side of a debate said.
The Nazis had the right to march in Skokie, and instead of causing Jewish people in Chicago’s northern suburbs to cower in fear or move far away, the marchers instead became the butt of The Blues Brothers. University of Chicago professor Todd Henderson whined about how hard it is to get by on more than $250,000 in an expensive neighborhood with kids in private school, a nanny, and a yard service, and he’s become the joke of the Internet. (I’m torn between feeling sorry for him and wanting to sentence him to six months hard labor in a soup kitchen.) Dr. Schlesinger may have lost her show, but she didn’t get thrown in jail or permanently lose her livelihood for preaching hate. In some circles, her willingness to offend her fellow Americans only makes her more marketable.
So that’s my civics lecture for today. We can’t all get along, as much as it would be nice to. Instead, we have to let people do their talking.