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Published: Sunday, July 7, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Understand free speech before crying wolf

Some folks have strange ideas about the First Amendment. Funny thing, that, since it's mainly those of teabag persuasion that misunderstand, while claiming to channel the founding fathers every time they do ope their ruby lips; political versions of our own J.Z. Knight and her remunerative relic, Ramtha.
I've been told, for example, that in criticizing Fox "news" I'm for shutting down "freedom of the press." Hey, if I had that kind of power, I'd use it for good. Which, come to think of it, might include shutting down Fox "news." But that's fantasy. The point is that, as with freedom of speech, along with freedom of the press comes the right of others to call bullpucky.
Yet, as Knight follows day, Solipsistic Sarah, the half-term governance-quitter, proves my point by wailing that liberals attack her freedom of speech when they call out her particular brand of delusive demagoguery. Wrong. Free speech doesn't come with a free pass. If the apocalyptic Alaskan has the right to her divisive and lazy claims, you and I have the right to respond to them. Likewise, my pointing out that Fox is a hyper-partisan propaganda pusher that's doing incalculable harm to our political process is, first, stating the obvious; and, second, is not to say they haven't the right to be who they are. It's acting, freely, on my wish, however unrealistic, that they consider the dependence of democracy on accurate information; also, while knowing it'll never happen, it's my free speech windmill-tilting attempt to get a couple of people in their audience to reconsider, based on facts, their willing credulity. (Preemptive response: yes, MSNBC is liberal. But no a thousand times: there's simply no equivalence to Fox's use of dishonest editing, nonstop inflaming of the most gullible, and trotting out the most conspiratorial among us. Besides, who pays attention to MSNBC, anyway?)
Leave it to Mitch "If anyone else says I look like a turtle I'll pull my head into my shell" McConnell to exploit this kind of ignorance to his party's advantage. The IRS "scandal," he snapped, represents an "assault on free speech." Huh? The law states that only primarily apolitical "social welfare" groups are allowed tax exemptions; and since it's obvious that some applicants are, in fact, mainly political, in what way is it a violation of free speech to make sure applicants are complying with legal requirements? It's a stupid law, for sure. But a free speech issue? Only in the eyes of those who fail to understand the term, or of those figuring, per usual, that they can purloin a few more votes by bamboozling people into ersatz outrage. Because why not? It never seems to fail.
The IRS brewed ha-ha is, at worst, a case of poor message management; at best, it's a needed revelation of the money-laundering scam that is giving tax breaks to political operations. Moreover: of the exemptions granted, two-thirds went to conservative groups. None of the Tea Party requests were ultimately turned down, while at least three liberal groups were. Plus, it's just been revealed that the IRS also screened names containing "progressive," "Israel," and "occupy." And why are we hearing about that only now? Because Congressional Rs had required that their IRS probe only look at how it treated Tea Party groups. Now that's targeting! Surprised? Thud.
Free speech means freedom to speak. It doesn't mean freedom from consequences. I'm free to write stuff, you're free to complain. The Herald is free to cancel me. Similarly, the firing of Paula Deen isn't about free speech, either. Someone decided, wisely or not, that she was bad for business. Invisible hand, and all that. Right, conservatives?
Want an actual free speech issue? Try this: laws telling doctors they may not discuss all options available to pregnant women. Or that they must force certain tests on them, use certain specific language in counseling. Demanding that AIDS prevention agencies speak out against sex workers. (Those first two, being state laws, aren't directly addressed in the Constitution; but the precedent ought to scare us all.) Barring people from saying things or forcing speech on them are indisputable government abridgments of free speech. The IRS thing? Absolutely not. Does the leader of Senate Republicans really not get that? Or does he assume Republican voters are stupid?
The First Amendment applies to actions taken by Congress, and has nothing to say about interactions between us friends. For something so straightforward, it sure seems hard for some people to understand.
Sid Schwab lives in Everett. Send emails to columnsid@gmail.com

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Jon Bauer, Opinion Editor: jbauer@heraldnet.com

Carol MacPherson, Editorial Writer: cmacpherson@heraldnet.com

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Josh O'Connor, Publisher: joconnor@heraldnet.com

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