There is an argument popping up like a noxious weed, espoused on the net on this page and elsewhere (here, and here, and here and plenty of other places, besides), that boils down to this: Don Imus’s right to free speech has been trampled, and that’s an outrageous assault to our American values.
With all due respect to the meth-addled nimrods espousing this point of view, this is an absolutely clueless, idiotic, and devastatingly stupid thing to say. Allow me to explain why:
The First Amendment to the Constitution states, in part, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”
What does that mean? It means that the United States Government may not tell you what you can or cannot say. Neither municipalities, states, nor Congress can make a law that restricts your freedom to express your opinion. Nor can any mayor, governor, or president dictate the subjects or particulars of your public or private speech. Nor can any court rule that you should be thrown in jail, as long as your words don’t incite others to violently overthrow the government or as long as you don’t lie about someone in public in a way that could damage their good name.
The Constitution regulates the behavior of the government. What it doesn’t do is regulate the behavior of its citizens. Therefore, if Don Imus says something completely stupid and offensive, it’s not a violation of his free speech rights if the rest of us him call him on it, raise hell with his advertisers, and petition his network to give him his walking papers. On the contrary, that’s the way communities work. That’s the way we come to consensus on what kind of behavior we tolerate.
(In the past—for instance, in the Janet Jackson boob scandal—American citizens have often turned to the government to regulate issues of decency and speech. However, I actually think the Imus instance has been handled in a much more appropriate manner—by citizens taking action themselves. The reaction was swift, the response was swift, and no one had to go to jail or spend money on lawyers. It’s much easier and more efficient to handle these kinds of public outrages on a case-by-case basis by applying pressure in the appropriate places: on the offender, the employer, and the advertisers.)
The difference is between community standards and government interference. The government didn’t get involved in the Imus case. The community did. And the community reinforced a standard that has existed since the beginning of time: Nobody gets a free pass to say whatever they like regardless of consequences.
Did you get that last phrase there? That’s the important part. Let me repeat it again, separately, and in big, bold letters:
REGARDLESS OF CONSEQUENCES
The right of free speech means I’m able to call my neighbor a clueless train-wreck of a human being and his wife a rutting whore. However, if I do, he’ll likely punch me in the nose. So I don’t generally call people clueless train-wrecks and rutting whores. At least not as long as I’m within arm’s reach.
Similarly, if a public figure such as Don Imus dismisses a group of athletes with a racial slur, it’s up to us whether we want to accept that as proper public discourse or raise hell about it. That’s the flip side of free speech: there are consequences to what you say—not because you’ll go to jail, but because your fellow citizens will not accept you as fit to walk amongst them.
Why people don’t get this basic distinction is beyond me. But what do I know? I’m just an ass.