10/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"This Comment Has Been Removed"

Those five words are showing up with increasing frequency in blogs and e-letters to editors from Chula Vista to Bangor.

Comments worthy of censorship? Unless you caught them before the offending entry was expunged you'll never know. Still, scores of problematic remarks survive the cyber-censors, and some of them are enough to sour the stomachs of those who long for civility in our discourse.

Think back over just the past few months. We've witnessed fever-pitched nastiness in our national chat on the Sotomayor supreme court nomination, a legal abortionist's murder, our (black) president's health care plan, Barney Frank's public smackdown of that Nazi-baiting town-hall interlocutor, the professor-police hullabaloo, even Senator Kennedy's death.

Instead of tough, respectful exchanges of viewpoints we get sewage-slinging epithets on topics of critical importance to the health and welfare of our people, and of our democratic institutions.

Over the years I've trafficked in controversial issues: the drug war (end it), capital punishment (abolish it), gun control (embrace it), white (and male) privilege (eradicate it), racism, sexism, homophobia (ditto, ditto, ditto). Each is a stance guaranteed to inflame the passions of people on the other side, and to trigger truckloads of hate mail -- much of it from former colleagues in law enforcement.

Poor me. Are my sensibilities so delicate I can't handle these attacks? I can handle them; in fact, I'm often, perversely, I guess, entertained by them. No, the real issue here, the one we too often ignore in our proper defense of the First Amendment, is that inflammatory words tend to, well, inflame. They can and do activate violent tendencies among some. Is there any doubt that an innocent man, "Tiller the Baby Killer," may have been killed, at least in part, because of that cruel label attached to him by certain pundits and bloggers?

How long will it be before one of those pistol-packing town-hallers, driven to the brink by publicly aired hate-talk, pulls his gun, and then its trigger?

I wonder, is it even possible to restore some sense of decency to our public speech? I'm not advocating a diet of conversational pablum, the withholding of criticism of people and policies, much less anything resembling prior restraint. That would be un-American.

But what harm would come if we were to adopt a philosophy attributed variously to Socrates, the 19th century guru Sai Baba, and others: "Before you speak, ask yourself, is it true; is it kind; is it necessary?" In other words, "Does it improve upon the silence?"