Free Speech in Wartime

The Washington Post
September 29, 2001


In a letter on this page today, Frederick J. Ryan Jr., president of the company that owns WJLA-TV, protests that the station was not engaged in censorship when it decided to "suspend" airing of Bill Maher's show, "Politically Incorrect." Legally speaking, he is correct. The station acted in response to comments Mr. Maher made about the Sept. 11 attacks; he questioned whether flying a plane into a building is really cowardly compared with firing a cruise missile from thousands of miles away. WJLA is certainly entitled to decide that its viewers should be insulated from such talk. But this isn't a question of law. The station had long carried the program, whose very purpose is to be, as its name suggests, brash and confrontational. The station's decision to keep the show off the air was a capitulation to pressure to toe a certain line. That pressure is none too subtle and flows not merely from an outraged public. The station had actually begun airing the program again, until White House spokesman Ari Fleischer denounced Mr. Maher, saying that Americans "need to watch what they say." This remark was left out of the White House's official account of the news conference, the result of what the White House termed "a transcription error." But its message has apparently been heard loud and clear. The White House has admirably embraced its role of speaking out for religious or ethnic minorities who find themselves embattled in the current climate. It's too bad that some officials there don't seem to understand that free political expression is an equally vital American value.

Mr. Maher's remark is far from the only case in which institutions have failed to protect dissenters from retribution. The president of the University of New Mexico, amid pressure from state legislators, announced that he would "vigorously pursue" disciplinary action against a longtime professor who told students that "anyone who can blow up the Pentagon gets my vote" -- a remark the professor called, by way of apology, "the worst attempt at an incredibly stupid joke." The New York Times reports that a columnist for the Texas City Sun was fired after writing that Mr. Bush, instead of returning to Washington on the day of attacks, was "flying around the country like a scared child, seeking refuge in his mother's bed after having a nightmare." The same happened to a columnist in Oregon, who accused Mr. Bush of having "skedaddled" in the wake of the attacks.

Yes, newspapers and universities and television stations have a right to be spineless. But they will be judged in time by how robustly they resist a climate of intolerance. It is not a show of strength to come down hard on dissent, even in times of war. It is, rather, America's strength to encourage contrarian viewpoints and tolerate distasteful remarks, especially when political discourse matters.

Copyright 2001 The Washington Post

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