Offensive remarks are part of free speech

In 1946, a 33-year-old Richard Nixon began what would become a long and ignominious political career. That career ended in 1974 when he resigned from the presidency in disgrace to avoid impeachment and possible imprisonment.

In his first bid for public office, Nixon defeated incumbent Jerry Voorhis. To do so, he conducted a whisper campaign that Voorhis, a five-term Democrat, was a communist. In 1950, Nixon ran for Senate, accusing yet another opponent of being a communist. And again he won.

After just four years in the House and two years in the Senate, “Tricky Dick”, the nickname given to him by his senatorial opponent, was chosen by General Dwight Eisenhower as a vice-presidential running mate. And after only six years in Washington, Nixon was linked to a financial scandal that would have ended the careers of less slimy politicians.

Last week, in a manner that would have made the anti-communist crusader-cum-inquisitor proud, Minn. Republican Michele Bachmann accused Barack Obama of being “anti-American,” the same desperate and sleazy attack being trumpeted by the McCain-Palin campaign. To prove just how crazy she is, during the same interview, Bachmann called for an investigation into which members of Congress were anti-American.

It is against this backdrop that Matt Brumit’s column, accusing an SMU professor of being unpatriotic for displaying an anti-Bush sticker on his office door, demands a response.

I have a Bush political cartoon on my door. It does not say “Bush Sucks.” But even if it did, even if the cartoon on my door showed President Bush festooned in a Victoria Secret negligee, Brumit would be wrong. For the record, I am willing to accept that. Brumit’s intentions are honorable. He’s still wrong.

Whatever the epithet – communist, socialist, unpatriotic – the unrelenting attempt by Republicans to label Democrats as the “other” is reaching McCarthyist proportions. Former General Colin Powell mentioned this disturbing trend as one of the (many) reasons he is voting for Barack Obama. For the record, neither McCain nor Palin has called Obama “unpatriotic,” choosing, instead, the more inflammatory and disparaging epithet “un-American.”

Over two hundred years ago, British essayist Samuel Johnson wrote, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Johnson was referring to the exaggerated claims of patriotism that people like John McCain and Sarah Palin make while questioning the patriotism of others.

According to Sarah Palin, some parts of America are more “pro-American” than others. The inference is clear. To say that the McCain-Palin ticket’s attempt to divide the country along class, race, religion and party lines is troubling is an understatement. As troubling as Brumit’s attempt to rout out — or embarrass –“unpatriotic” professors at SMU.

Brumit and I do agree on one thing: the office of the presidency deserves respect and deference. The holder of that office, on the other hand, does not necessarily. 

This is not the first time I have read this thinly veiled argument for censorship. More than one conservative student on this campus has suggested that my comments be censored. Most of my detractors make half-hearted references to the First Amendment before constructing a weak argument why it shouldn’t apply to me. Brumit’s argument, while perhaps sincere, is no more convincing.

Brumit’s comments are dangerously similar to comments made against anyone who has refused to fall lockstep into line with the disastrous policies propagated by George W. Bush during the last eight years.

Brumit writes, “Free speech is one thing; slander is something completely different. But to me this is not a legal issue, it is an ethical one. It is a matter of principle. Just as I do not want university professors to be known for sexual promiscuity, I do not want them to be known for verbal promiscuity either.”

Sexual promiscuity? I won’t even touch that non-sequitur.

Slander is a different matter. But the sticker Brumit bemoans is not slanderous. Even Justice Scalia, arguably the most conservative member of the Supreme Court, would agree. (See Hustler Magazine V. Jerry Falwell.) 

Again, I know Brumit wasn’t referring to me. The political cartoon on my door does not qualify as a “flat-out bashing of the president himself and nothing else.” On the contrary, the cartoon on my door clearly references Bush’s veto of a bill that would have expanded health insurance to children.

It’s pretty funny actually. You should come see it. It shows a sick child in bed, with a thermometer in his mouth, a teddy bear at his side, his mother’s hand on his forehead and his father holding a newspaper that reads, “Bush vetoes medical care for uninsured children.” The caption reads, “Sweetheart, the president says it’s better to be sick than be a socialist.”

Actually, it’s not that funny. It’s not funny at all. It’s not funny that over eight million American children don’t have insurance.

Whether at a prestigious university or any of the handful of community colleges that Palin attended, free speech is free speech. The attempt to abridge even the most offensive speech offends the Constitution. And it should offend every student at SMU.

Why? Because free speech demands that people accept the obligation to be offended. It demands that people accept that the president is not immune to ridicule.

During the last debate, McCain attempted to defend his campaign’s attacks on Obama’s character by saying that he was offended by Democratic Congressman John Lewis’ comparison of McCain to former Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace.

Obama rightly responded that Americans care more about the lack of health care, rising unemployment, foreclosure, lost savings and retirement than hurt feelings.

So to anyone whose feelings are hurt by a gratuitous jab at Bush or Obama, be glad we live in a country in which hurt feelings afford us the right to express our opinion – without fear of being labeled un-American or unpatriotic.

George Henson is a lecturer of foreign languages and literatures. He can be reached for comment at ghenson@smu.edu.

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