Opinion: Carolina Beat

We Must Value the First Amendment

There was a time when one’s initiation into the fraternity of journalism included a profound indoctrination into the value of the First Amendment to the survival of our Republic.

Back in the heady post-Watergate days of the mid-’70s, editors and reporters were patting themselves on the back for saving the country, mainly due to the existence of these 45 words:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

So, what the heck happened? Everywhere you look these days the freedoms of speech and expression are under attack, and too many of those in the journalism profession seem to be among the attackers.

Take Scott Simon of NPR, for example. As Baltimore was erupting in violence recently after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, he tweeted this: “The live pictures from Baltimore are unsettling, & I’m not sure pictures help.”

Would he have said that about the violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, or Bull Connor’s use of German shepherds and firehoses in Birmingham?

And then there’s the media’s reaction to the “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, on May 3, which resulted in two would-be jihadi murderers being killed by local cops. Think what you will of event organizer Pamela Geller and her tactics; she clearly has First Amendment protection for what she did.

But many journalists didn’t see it that way, even though stubborn defiance in the face of threats of violence has been, traditionally, a journalistic trait.

The Washington Post ran a headline, “Event organizer offers no apology after thwarted attack in Texas,” blaming Geller and not the two Islamist attackers. Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker’s column was titled “Pamela Geller’s abuse of free speech.”

Even conservative media types like Bill O’Reilly and Laura Ingraham blamed Geller for inciting Muslim violence, as if to say, “We KNOW what these people are like, so don’t antagonize them.”

The notion of “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” has given way, even among journalists, to a multicultural fetish against offending anyone who is not Western, or who is among a media-anointed “victim class.”

One of the First Amendment’s oft-cited values is that, by permitting offensive and unsettling speech, we teach people to be more tolerant. After all, we wouldn’t need a First Amendment if all speech was inoffensive.

The corollary, that without a functioning and valued First Amendment we become less tolerant, cannot be disputed. Just look around.

Jon Ham (@rivlax) is a vice president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.