Should freedom of speech mean never having to say you're sorry?
Not if you're Dr. Laura Schlessinger, and you spent two minutes of your nationally syndicated radio show spewing the n-word repeatedly at a black caller. (The final tally was 11.) Unable to handle the criticism -- and the retreat of prominent advertisers -- Schlessinger opted to leave the radio game, telling Larry King that she was doing so to "regain her first amendment rights."
Or, to hear Sarah Palin re-tell the episode on her twitter feed: "[Schlessinger] steps aside bc her 1st Amend.rights ceased 2exist thx 2activists trying 2silence"isn't American,not fair."
Got that? The First Amendment of the Constitution protects one's right to say whatever you darn well please. It does not, however, protect critics from responding. And it certainly doesn't permit one's corporate sponsors from exerting any sort of control over what they endorse.
Palin is admittedly an easy target. But her interpretation of the First Amendment and the Constitution generally speaks to a distressing misconception that rears its head too often in lay discussions of constitutional rights. When Don Imus -- who used his national radio soapbox to, at various points, poke fun of the looks of a celebrity post-mastectomy and demean the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy headed hos" -- was dropped by CBS, there was a rush to label him a First Amendment martyr.
Michael Dorf, a Cornell Law professor, argued that subsequent campaigns to call Imus's sponsors to account for their endorsements "pose[d] a serious threat to the spirit of the First Amendment." Less high-minded, still-sympathetic talkers such as Townhall's Cal Thomas, gave voice to the notion that Imus' mistake was that he ran afoul of a "first amendment double standard."
The view shared by many that there are legislative remedies to the question of birthright citizenship -- guaranteed by the 14th amendment -- stems from a similar place. Sen. Lindsey Graham's call for a constitutional amendment to deprive "anchor-babies" of citizenship, while of dubious soundness, at least had the effect of coating that discussion with a veneer of intellectual honesty. That approach has limits, however. It's highly doubtful -- one hopes, at least -- that anyone respectable will seek to end the erroneous debate over whether the government should interfere in the construction of the Cordoba House with a No Mosques Amendment.
But it hardly matters to the constitutional nihilists that their views lack the substance to shape policy. It's enough for them that they have the power to shape popular perceptions. The easiest fight -- definitely for fundraising purposes -- is always that which can't be won. And it usually works. Don Imus has a new show, Palin continues to rake in the dough. Does anyone have any question that Schlessinger will soon follow with a martyrdom tour of her own?
Follow Asher Smith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Asher_E_Smith