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Dare to be stupid

Paul Fletcher//December 31, 2012

Dare to be stupid

Paul Fletcher//December 31, 2012

Piers Morgan, the British-born host of the CNN program “Piers Morgan Tonight,” got into a verbal dust-up Dec. 19 with a guest on his show, Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America.

Morgan ostensibly asked Pratt on the show to have a discussion on guns. But the host, incensed over the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, called Pratt an “idiot” and “an incredibly stupid man” for arguing, among other things, that teachers should be armed.

What did Morgan get for voicing his opinions? A bump in the ratings? Nope. Two days later, a guy named “Kurt N.” in Austin, Texas, launched a petition drive, asking the Obama administration to deport the British national.

The White House has an online mechanism by which anyone can petition the government to take some action. Kurt N. said that “Morgan is engaged in a hostile attack against the U.S. Constitution by targeting the Second Amendment.”

He demanded “that Mr. Morgan be deported immediately for his effort to undermine the Bill of Rights and for exploiting his position as a national network television host to stage attacks against the rights of American citizens.”

By Dec. 26, more than 70,000 people had signed the petition. Half of those were added after news coverage of the petition first broke Christmas Eve.

Since the petition has topped 25,000 signatures, President Obama will have to respond.

Don’t expect Morgan to be packing his bags any time soon. The First Amendment still protects freedom of speech in this country. Even for British television hosts.

Take another example. A young Massachusetts woman named Lindsey Stone last month posted a goofy picture of herself on Facebook. She and a friend visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, where a sign asks “Silence and Respect.”

Stone, grinning all the way, flipped a bird and pretended to shout in the mugging shot. After she put it on Facebook, it went viral and veterans’ groups and families went ballistic.

A Facebook group called “Fire Lindsey Stone” was created, quickly gaining more than 4,000 likes. The drumbeat of publicity kept going; Stone herself received death and rape threats.

Her employer, a small non-profit, did indeed fire her, along with the woman who snapped the picture.

What does everyone I have discussed so far have in common? They all acted kind of stupidly.

Morgan asked a pro-gun guy on his show, then resorted to haranguing and petty name-calling. Pratt wants every schoolmarm to pack heat. Kurt N. needed two days to concoct a silly overheated petition. Stone’s dumb photo speaks for itself. Then some people lost all perspective and wanted her to lose her job, or wanted her killed, for a childish prank. Come on, everyone.

On one hand, you could start to worry about what’s happening to the ability to speak up or speak out.

But then, you need to remember that you have the right to do or say stupid things – in the marketplace of ideas it all gets sorted out. And it’s been that way in this country for a long time.

Ashley Messenger, associate general counsel for NPR, gave a talk on the First Amendment to the Society of Professional Journalists, Virginia Pro chapter, on Dec. 16. (I am the president of this group).

The setting: Gunston Hall in Fairfax County, Va., home of George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Mason’s Declaration was the forerunner of the Bill of Rights, and Thomas Jefferson liberally cribbed Mason’s concepts and wording for the Declaration of Independence.

Messenger noted that when Mason, Jefferson and the other Founders were debating how to set up the new American government, there was a willingness to respect and protect the freedoms of others, particularly the freedom to express ideas.

The best way to deal with offensive speech or acts is not seeking to silence the speaker or resort to punishment, said Messenger. “The remedy for offensive speech is more speech,” she said, meaning, identify why the statements or acts are wrong or hurtful. Put the ideas on the table for discussion in an effort to increase understanding. The Founders had great faith that good ideas would win out and lesser ones would fall, after a respectful, vigorous exchange.

Morgan was given a megaphone along with a star on his door and his name on a show. But he used it to shout and failed to put it to his ear to listen to any point of view beside his own.

Respecting freedom of speech, Messenger said, must be “cultural” – people must be educated to respect other ideas and even to be “fighting for the right to say something offensive.”

Veterans’ families were offended by Stone’s prank, but it’s not overstating or disrespectful to note that their honored late loved ones went to war to preserve her right to do what she did.

Mason and Jefferson believed in protecting the expression of all ideas – good, bad, even stupid.

If we forget that, and allow blowhards or online lynch mobs to carry the day, well, that’s the surest way to “undermine the Bill of Rights” and for us to lose our freedoms.

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