1st Amendment attacked by the shortsighted
The resignation this week of University of Colorado President Betsy Hoffman got us thinking about the First Amendment.There were many reasons for Hoffman to step down, and we don’t know and won’t speculate on whether she made the right decision. To the degree Hoffman’s decision hinged on the controversy surrounding professor Ward Churchill, however, we think it’s a shame.It’s not that Churchill’s comment, in which he compared victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to a Nazi war criminal, was reasonable or even defensible. The point is that, in this country, Churchill’s right to express his opinion is inviolate – regardless of what he has to say.If the American public, or for that matter, Colorado citizens, feel the need for heads to roll when a professor offends a lot of people, then they’re too short-sighted to see past their own hurt feelings. It’s one more unsettling sign that the First Amendment, a cornerstone of our republic, means less to people than it should.Part of the job of academia is to challenge the status quo, to ask probing questions and to express controversial opinions. So we should think twice when a loud-mouthed professor becomes the focus of such widespread anger and indignation. What, after all, is so threatening about Ward Churchill and his clearly unpopular viewpoint?But this issue goes beyond academia. According to the First Amendment Center, which monitors public opinion about First Amendment freedoms, 30 percent of Americans agree with the following statement: “The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.”Said Gene Policinski, acting director of the First Amendment Center, “Having about one in three Americans say they have too much freedom is a disturbing figure.”Those of us in the journalism field obviously agree with Policinski’s assessment. Part of this nation’s fundamental strength is its capacity for open and vigorous debate, its thriving marketplace of ideas. Our society’s openness enables us to change course and to correct our mistakes; it’s the main reason we continue to evolve and progress.For those who haven’t read it in a while, here’s the text of the First Amendment: “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.”There’s nothing in there that would necessarily protect Ward Churchill from harsh judgment in the court of public opinion. But it’s absolutely clear that he has the right to express his opinion, however offensive or ridiculous.
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