Commentary

Free Speech Is Not So Free

By Deroy Murdock
March 23, 2000
Free speech is not what it used to be. Slowly but surely, government officials, plaintiffs’ attorneys and political activists have chipped away at one of the cornerstones of American liberty. In a new special entitled “You Can’t Say That!,” ABC’s John Stossel examines the degree to which Americans now must hold their tongues. This program, which airs March 23, illustrates how one of this country’s most precious freedoms is dwindling, one baby step at a time.

Surely a bar owner can say what he wishes on his own private property. Don’t be so sure. Stossel introduces viewers to Leonard Carlo, a 66-year-old whose colorful speech would curl a sailor’s hair. Leonards II, his bar in Colorado Springs, contains several expletive-laden placards such as those on the rest rooms that read “f—-ing men” and “f—-ing women.” Carlo’s guests seem totally relaxed about this. “It’s a word. It’s a noun,” one patron casually points out. “You can make a sentence out of it.” This is hardly morally redeeming, but don’t adults old enough to drink have the right to gather at a watering hole that glorifies profanity?

Apparently not. One customer complained to state alcohol control authorities who removed several signs from Carlo’s bar that they deemed offensive. They also told Carlo not to use foul language in his own establishment. Imagine, a tavern without four-letter words.

Far less graphic language can torpedo a career. The fight against sexual harassment began as a sensible effort to protect employees from unwelcome gropes and threats of job trouble if they did not agree to their supervisors’ carnal desires. Sexual harassment today, however, is a term whose definition is infinitely elastic.

Jerry MacKenzie told a co-worker about a “Seinfeld” episode in which the comedian forgets his date’s name. He only remembers that it rhymes with a part of the female anatomy. After MacKenzie’s colleague objected, he was fired from the Miller Brewing Company which, oddly enough, sponsored the show.

Why was MacKenzie sacked rather than allowed to apologize? “It’s the lawsuit lottery,” Miller’s attorney Frank Daily explains. To shield itself from litigation, Miller cut MacKenzie off.

Bernice Harris’ words were even more innocent. As a cashier at the U.S. Senate Coffee Shop, Harris affectionately greeted her customers as “sweetheart” and “baby.” Then a man said her words left him sexually harassed. Although she kept her job, an exasperated Harris now says: “I don’t call anybody ‘baby’ no more.”

With sexual harassment now defined down to terms of endearment from a middle-aged woman at a check-out stand, it’s no wonder that many American workplaces are becoming increasingly sterile. With employees as sensitive as Geiger counters, who knows what random comment might set someone off.

Most frightening of all is the way free speech is threatened precisely where it should be enshrined - at America’s universities. Once oases of open exchange, free speech at many elite colleges has become as quaint as pep rallies and glee clubs.

Ward Connerly, a University of California regent and vocal proponent of colorblindness in college admissions, was shouted down mercilessly at the University of Texas in November 1998. As one young activist ignorantly put it: “Our First Amendment rights as students were violated when he hit this campus.”

Several Columbia University students whose raucous protests interfered with a fall 1998 Accuracy in Academia seminar sound like Mao Tse-tung’s Red Guards at the depths of the Cultural Revolution. “The conference was completely disrupted,” says one co-ed. “That was exactly what we were hoping to do.” One of her schoolmates adds: “If they get chased out of the city, they get chased out of the city. Their ideas aren’t welcome.”

When Stossel visits Brown University to cover a rally on sexual violence, he asks a few students about the limits of acceptable dating behavior. He is surrounded by a crowd that repeatedly screams, “Rape is not TV hype!” As if that did not hinder his interviews enough, one protester keeps another student from speaking with Stossel on camera by disconnecting his microphone cord.

Perhaps these teenage totalitarians can be forgiven their youthful excesses. But there is no excuse for the complicity of campus administrators who fail to provide adult supervision and allow institutions of higher learning to become hotbeds of censorship and mob rule.

John Stossel’s provocative program is a disturbing reminder that free speech is widely taken for granted, yet constantly under fire. America’s complacent citizens must speak up for their right to speak out — or forever hold their peace.

New York commentator Deroy Murdock is a Senior Fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Fairfax, Virginia, and a policy advisor to the Cato Institute.