THE BLOG
09/16/2013 04:08 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

The 1st Amendment, Bigotry, and Facebook: A Call for More Self Restraint

"Beyond all the other reasons not to do it, free speech assaults always backfire: they transform bigots into martyrs." - Glenn Greenwald

Everyone who has a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account can attest to a very negative aspect of these social media platforms in that some of our "friends" use them to disseminate a relentless stream of problematic remarks and photos, much that amount to nothing more than indecent filth or gutter bigotry that they would otherwise never utter or display in public, or at all.

The evolution of such "uncensored" dialogue has raised questions not only revolving around the individual's constitutional right to post such offensive or vile dialogue and imagery, but also the impact and growing acceptance of such debasing communication in terms of an individual's moral obligation to display decency and tolerant behavior toward others in their daily lives.

Case in point: This week, a controversy developed in South Florida when John Jameson, the Public Information Officer of Palm Beach County, posted what was termed an "anti-Muslim" message on his personal Facebook page.

This is what Jameson allegedly posted as a 9-11 tribute from his own computer, when he was not working:

"Never forget. There is no such thing as radical Islam. All Islam is radical. There may be Muslims who don't practice their religion, much like others. The Quran is a book that preaches hate."

A local Imam called the remarks "irresponsible" and Islamic groups asked for an investigation into how Jameson handles county social media communications. Others offended by the comment in terms of political correctness called for his removal from his position and asked in the alternative for sanctions against him at work.

Exercising bureaucratic damage control, PBC County Administrator Bob Weisman initially refused to take action against Jameson and stated:

"The private rights of employees on social media and for other modes of communication are protected by the U.S. Constitution and relevant law,"

Concurrently, 1st Amendment advocates, and some Islamophobes masking their intolerance behind such constitutional advocacy, came to Jameson's defense, publishing sympathetic articles with such headlines like "County worker unfairly targeted for personal Facebook post criticizing Quran."

To make matters worse, when confronted by a TV news crew at home, Jameson said the following:

"If I owe anybody an apology, it would be the county commissioners and county administration just for the fact that you're all on my porch. No, I don't think I owe anybody an apology, I didn't say anything offensive."

So an acrimonious debate now centers around whether Jameson's right to publish what was indeed an obtuse, offensive statement is constitutionally protected (it is) and whether or not he should be punished at work for an act that took place on his private time and on his own social media platform (maybe, since he's in charge of messaging for the county).

And that's wrong.

Instead of making Jameson a martyr in righteous constitutional terms or vilifying him as a bigot and ruining his career (a la Paula Dean), his words and actions should serve as the beginning of a discussion about promoting individual decency and self censorship on social media.

The big problem with social media is that it is a free, unfettered conduit toward negative, impulsive behavior and expression of thought. And it encourages, rather than discourages, bad, uncivil pronouncements and behavior.

The truth is that we are all bigots, one way or the other. We all have dislikes, prejudices, and hatreds that are learned from childhood from parents, religious or philosophical teachings and from life experiences too. We also know that such opinions and feelings are wrong to a great extent, and should be kept to ourselves.

But like Jameson learned, social media too easily permits us to impulsively act, speak and display these otherwise misguided, repressed feelings of intolerance and prejudice to the world in milliseconds.

And once it's out there, you can't take it back.

It's interesting that when we misspell a word in a tweet or a post on Facebook or Titter, it's usually flagged, but there's no filter, or even a pause in posting, to alert us to what can be a career ending comment or post (a la Gilbert Gottfried).

Maybe if Jameson had sat on that post for a few moments, and he really thought about publishing it like a public information officer rather than an emotional patriotic hypocrite, his bigoted statement would never had made it into cyberspace.

In terms of our bad behavior, we don't necessary need more censorship by either our government or the social media sites. We do need to be more sensitive when we post, practice better moral behavior and more self restraint in what we post in social media.

We are all guilty of being John Jamesons to some extent.

by Steven Kurlander
kurly@stevenkurlander.com

Published in The Florida Squeeze on September 13, 2013