Saturday, February 1, 2014

…on Freedom of Speech

 My mother, who turned 99 last month, is quite naturally a throwback to old school ways of doing things.  She believes all people should be civil to one another.  One of her favorite clichés is that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.

We are fortunate to live in a nation where we have unbridled free speech; and while it is a wonderful privilege, I think we are gradually reaching a point to where it is misused.  Many nations of the world provide harsh penalties for criticizing their leaders.  Imagine what would happen in North Korea should a commentator on television, or even a comedy program, refer to its current leader as a little short, fat, frump. He would probably meet the same fate the North Korean leader’s uncle met recently.

In general, Americans, Texans in particular, feel very comfortable saying most anything to their elected officials.  “They work for me,” they say, “why shouldn’t I be able to tell them anything I want,” no matter how demeaning or insulting.  I will forever defend the right of citizens to criticize their elected leaders, but there are ways it can be done without being hurtful, mean and too often non-productive.

Another reason elected officials are the target of unkind and even slanderous accusations is the state of the law relating to libel and slander in America.  In order to assure a free press without inhibition, the Supreme Court of the United States has decreed that in order for a public figure (most elected officials are considered public figures) to be successful in a suit for libel or slander, he or she must prove not only that the statement made about them is false and slanderous, but it was made intentionally with the motive to harm.  Recent  cases have decreed that the statement itself could not be used as proof of intentioned harm.  This, as a practical matter, in most cases makes it almost impossible for an elected official to win a lawsuit for libel or slander.

Adding to the long-suffering of public officials who have to undergo insulting, slanderous or ugly things said about them is the explosion of the electronic media.  Unfortunately, even bloggers are covered by the same protections as described above which are enjoyed by major news outlets such as television or newspapers.  Anyone with a computer can, in most instances, enjoy the protection granted to all media on the theory of full disclosure to the public of what elected officials are doing or not doing. 

As an elected official, I developed a fairly thick skin and paid little attention to stupid comments like, “All politicians are just in it for what they can get”  “All elected officials are crooks”  “Most people who are elected to office are stupid;” and on and on to ad nauseam.   I and other elected officials develop various defense mechanisms to deal with these kinds of stupid confrontations.  For example, one of my pet peeves was the person who would walk up to you, get into my face and say, “You don’t remember my name, do you?”  I would generally, if there was an audience, reply, “How could I forget someone who I got out of jail.”  Usually it would amuse the onlookers but not the perpetrator of the stupid question.  I probably was not as politically correct as Barbara Jordan whose response to such a question was more politic.  When confronted with the one among several thousand constituents demanding to know whether or not she remembered their name, when asked, “Do you remember my name?” Barbara would glare at them with her dark countenance and respond, “Should I?”

It would be a good thing if constituents would remember that elected officials are people too and deserving of some modicum of respect.  In the event you approach your elected representative with a barb that makes you feel good, you shouldn’t take offense if he or she responds in kind.  We would all be better off if all of us could remember what my mother said: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.”

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