Free Speech Is Not So Free

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Free speech is not what it used to be. Slowly but surely,government officials, plaintiffs' attorneys and political activists havechipped away at one of the cornerstones of American liberty. In a newspecial entitled "You Can't Say That!," ABC's John Stosselexamines the degree to which Americans now must hold their tongues. Thisprogram, which airs March 23, illustrates how one of this country's mostprecious 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, a66-year-old whose colorful speech would curl a sailor's hair. LeonardsII, his bar in Colorado Springs, contains several expletive-ladenplacards such as those on the rest rooms that read "f---ing men"and "f---ing women." Carlo's guests seem totally relaxed aboutthis. "It's a word. It's a noun," one patron casually points out."You can make a sentence out of it." This is hardly morallyredeeming, but don't adults old enough to drink have the right to gatherat a watering hole that glorifies profanity?

Apparently not. One customer complained to state alcohol controlauthorities who removed several signs from Carlo's bar that they deemedoffensive. They also told Carlo not to use foul language in his ownestablishment. Imagine, a tavern without four-letter words.

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

Jerry MacKenzie told a co-worker about a "Seinfeld" episode inwhich the comedian forgets his date's name. He only remembers that itrhymes with a part of the female anatomy. After MacKenzie's colleagueobjected, he was fired from the Miller Brewing Company which, oddlyenough, sponsored the show.

Why was MacKenzie sacked rather than allowed to apologize? "It's thelawsuit lottery," Miller's attorney Frank Daily explains. To shielditself 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 himsexually harassed. Although she kept her job, an exasperated Harris nowsays: "I don't call anybody 'baby' no more."

With sexual harassment now defined down to terms of endearment from amiddle-aged woman at a check-out stand, it's no wonder that manyAmerican workplaces are becoming increasingly sterile. With employees assensitive as Geiger counters, who knows what random comment might setsomeone off.

Most frightening of all is the way free speech is threatened preciselywhere it should be enshrined - at America's universities. Once oases ofopen exchange, free speech at many elite colleges has become as quaintas pep rallies and glee clubs.

Ward Connerly, a University of California regent and vocal proponent ofcolorblindness in college admissions, was shouted down mercilessly atthe University of Texas in November 1998. As one young activistignorantly put it: "Our First Amendment rights as students wereviolated when he hit this campus."

Several Columbia University students whose raucous protests interferedwith a fall 1998 Accuracy in Academia seminar sound like Mao Tse-tung'sRed Guards at the depths of the Cultural Revolution. "The conferencewas completely disrupted," says one co-ed. "That was exactly whatwe were hoping to do." One of her schoolmates adds: "If they getchased out of the city, they get chased out of the city. Their ideasaren't welcome."

When Stossel visits Brown University to cover a rally on sexualviolence, he asks a few students about the limits of acceptable datingbehavior. He is surrounded by a crowd that repeatedly screams, "Rapeis not TV hype!" As if that did not hinder his interviews enough, oneprotester keeps another student from speaking with Stossel on camera bydisconnecting his microphone cord.

Perhaps these teenage totalitarians can be forgiven their youthfulexcesses. But there is no excuse for the complicity of campusadministrators who fail to provide adult supervision and allowinstitutions of higher learning to become hotbeds of censorship and mobrule.

John Stossel's provocative program is a disturbing reminder that freespeech is widely taken for granted, yet constantly under fire. America'scomplacent citizens must speak up for their right to speak out -- orforever hold their peace.

Deroy Murdock

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.