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Minding Our Business


  Reprinted from The State, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011

The cost of free speech

The echo ringing loudest in the wake of the Tucson tragedy is not of the gunshots that killed six and severely wounded a congresswoman, among others, but of the sharp and piercing words that ricochet around us. Was the rhetoric the real trigger for the Arizona shooter's action? Should we muzzle political speech in a democratic society? Is civility the antidote for violence?

The assault on the most innocuous of political gatherings — Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' "Congress on Your Corner — has launched a call for restraint on the part of politicians, partisans and the press. The presumption, if not yet the evidence, suggests that the inflammatory level of discourse and its pervasiveness in the 24/7 news cycle, on the web and in social media can fuel such an explosion of violence.

"Hate speech and other inciteful speech," FBI director Robert Mueller said in Tucson, create a challenge for law enforcement's ability to deal with the solitary offender.

Pima County sheriff Clarence Dupnik was less constrained. Dupnik said "the rhetoric about hatred, about mistrust of government" is used to "try to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week." That, says Dupnik, "has impact on people especially who are unbalanced personalities to begin with."

Jared Loughner. Timothy McVeigh. James Earl Ray. Lee Harvey Oswald.

But what really set them off? And is there anything we might do about it? Law enforcement has its legitimate concerns. Mine focus on the media and the political arena.

"The Rhetoric Made Me Do It!" says the bold headline on former CNN defense correspondent Jamie McIntyre's blog "Line of Departure." McIntyre took on what he describes as a national conversation on "rhetoric rage."

It's an important conversation to have. Howard Kurtz of The Daily Beast and CNN's Reliable Sources made it the focus of his Sunday show, then lamented on his blog that he was "disappointed in some of the vitriol" his interview guests continued to spew. The bookers for the TV talk shows seek guests who can be provocatively thoughtful. But if you can't do both, provocative tends to trump thoughtful. Inciteful has more audience magnetism than insightful. Twitter is rife with twits.

Much of the discussion following the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords has centered on Sarah Palin's campaign on behalf of conservative Tea Party Republicans. Last March, Palin's Facebook page highlighted 20 congressional districts Republicans might pick up. Giffords' was one.

A map on the Facebook page showed targets on each of the districts. Giffords voiced concern about being in the "crosshairs." A Palin aide, in a radio interview after the shooting, suggested the campaign "never ever, ever intended it to be gun sights," but it could have been "surveyor's symbols."

Let's not hang this anguishing attack in Tucson on Palin or any politician or, for that matter, any nattering media person. None placed the gun in Loughner's hand. And none can judge how the thought came to his head, certainly not through his rambling about government "mind controlling grammar."

Language matters in democratic society. Totalitarians can get away with outrageous doublespeak. In the media, we often describe campaigns as battles, candidates as combatants, speeches as salvoes, at least when we're not using sporting analogies which are equally combative. Politicians do much the same. Political free speech is given extraordinary deference by the courts.

"That may be free speech, but it's not without consequences," says Sheriff Dupnik. He is correct. The sheriff also drew a bead on (see how easy it is) Arizona's permissiveness toward carrying concealed weapons.

McIntyre's blog suggests a "national conversation about guns and so-called 'second amendment solutions' to first amendment problems." That's a conversation for another time, and the blogs and tweets will light up over it.

The U.S. Constitution, even as it was read at the opening of the current congressional session, was not written as a pick-what-you-like menu. With the First Amendment, you get the second and 25 others. Some have since been repealed, but consider it a totality, for even the record of repeal speaks to the nature and objectives of American society.

The students in our campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists sell a t-shirt that says, "Talk is cheap. Free speech isn't." A score of citizens paid an incalculable price for the preservation of free speech on the streets of Tucson.

|   The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.

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