Monday, June 14, 2010

Freedom of speech

Three young men are being sent to prison and a long time White House reporter is being forced to resign. In both cases, freedom of speech is an issue (as far as the Responsible Community is concerned – see author’s note at the end) but only one was wrong.

What is the difference?

Three men were sentenced to various combinations of jail, drug rehab program and community service by Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Shalina D. Kumar for burning a cross near the home of a African American family. The incident happen last August in Independence Township. All three pleaded guilty or no contest to the various crimes they were accused of committing. Judge Kumar said in court during the sentencing, “I think you should be ashamed and embarrassed for yourselves.” The judge in this case made a good decision and her sentencing statement expressed what should be the feelings and concerns of the entire community.

On a national stage, Helen Thomas, the long time White House reporter, resigned under pressure from her position with the Hearst organization after nearly 50 years because she said that the, “Jews should get out of Palestine.” She said it at a Jewish heritage month celebration after being asked her opinion by a rabbi. It does seem to be a reckless place to make such a statement. But, she must have felt safe to make the statement or she wasn’t thinking at all. Since she did resign, which the word “resign” is often a code word for being asked to leave, she saved a lot of trouble for everyone involved. But, she did have the right to make the statement and the community should be supporting her right to make any statement when it is not part of her reporting responsibilities.

The three men were wrong. It went well beyond a simple expression of an opinion. Everyone has the right to say what is on their mind, even if, as in this case, it is a discussing expression of racism. But, they crossed the line of merely expressing an opinion when they took action and burnt the cross near the family’s home. Action they claimed was not meant to express a racial opinion. But, there are few things that are more clearly racial than a burning cross in this culture with its history of bigotry. The action changed the expression of an opinion to an intimidating act. No one should face any intimidating act without a harsh, justified response from the community.

As for Helen Thomas, her statements were insensitive, expressed grave misunderstanding of the situation in the Middle East and clearly stated a perverse view of reality. If she had continued on as a White House reporter, every reader should be keenly aware of her position on the trouble in that troubled land. But, her opinion was merely an expression with no action suggested. In this country, based on the freedoms we enjoy, the community should support her right to express herself.

On a side note, the reaction to the comments Thomas made outside of her professional duties may place a damper on others expressing their opinions in similar situations. This means the community will know less about the background opinions of others that are reporting the news. An open environment is much better than the alternative.

As a community, we must support freedom of speech everywhere. But, we must insure that those that are the target of speech aren’t intimidated nor come to any harm.

[Author’s note: It is obvious that the opinions expressed on the Responsible Community blog are not of a legal nature. They are more of a common sense, practical approach to community that works at sharing the responsibility between the individual and the community.]


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