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Lyons: First Amendment doesn't buy a free pass for racist speech

Published: Saturday, May 3, 2014 11:37 p.m. CDT

Whenever our culture suffers a media storm based on ignorant remarks from some quasi-celebrity, I cringe – not only because of the comments but because the collective concept of the First Amendment will soon take an intellectual beating.

There are sometimes consequences when people say stupid things made public, regardless of how they reached the masses. Some guy on a reality show about a duck call company gets suspended. A rancher who became a cable TV poster child loses his FOX news pulpit when it turns out that he’s a racist. An NBA owner loses privileges as a millionaire jerk and probably will eventually lose his team.

Redneck TV wasn’t even my thing when “The Dukes of Hazzard” first aired. I don’t watch Sean Hannity, nor do I seek ranchers with persecution complexes, cheeky plumbers or any other strawmen to understand the news. And I’m not much of an NBA fan, especially when it’s still hockey season.

My expectations are low for people I’ve never met in positions that don’t require great understanding of humanity, and I’m quite certain that racism and bigotry are alive and well in 2014.

So I’m numb to the shock that racist people say racist things. What happens next, though, is another concern. It’s when people, and not even necessarily people who want to defend ignorant comments, shout that First Amendment rights of the person who made the comments were violated by the actions of some private body or corporation.

The comments are as predicable as a St. Louis Blues playoff exit: “So much for the right to free expression.” “Does the First Amendment even exist anymore?” “What about free speech?”

But here’s what the First Amendment says: “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 ...”

Here’s what it doesn’t say: “The NBA shall make no rules ...” “The Discovery Channel may not abridge the free exercise thereof …” “You have the right to say whatever monstrous thing you think and your employer must suffer for your ignorance.”

It’s not all public relations, either. The market has some impact. Just a hunch that “Duck Dynasty” doesn’t draw huge ratings from minorities and gay people.

We can argue about other constitutional matters or matters of employment law in some of these instances, but they have little to nothing to do with the First Amendment.

The First Amendment – in fact, the entire Bill of Rights – is about what the government cannot do to individuals. It is designed to protect us from government. It has no impact on the court of public opinion or even mob rule.

It’s kind of important for journalists who fight against the government’s infringement on the First Amendment daily. However, journalists understand that the public’s reaction to free expression is another matter entirely.

While nowhere near a shock jock, occasionally as a columnist I’ll push buttons or balance on the edge of politeness to stir discussion. Sometimes readers are offended by particular language or even my entire point of view on a specific subject. That goes with the territory and is to be expected. If you have an opinion that no one disagrees with, it’s not really a column –  it’s a greeting card or text for a poster with pictures of kitty cats.

On the flip side, if I brayed like a jackass with ignorant, racist comments, it wouldn’t be the government I’d be worried about. I’d worry about readers and my employer who 1) wouldn’t allow it to be published and 2) would start my car for me while typing my termination papers if I wrote or said those kinds of things anywhere.

I would then have the right (and the free time) to live in a mountain shack and scrawl my manifesto, or get a blogspot account where I could rant in digital paranoid bliss and neither the government nor my employer could stop me.

When people complain about the erosion of First Amendment rights, in addition to being wrong, some seem to really be pining for a simpler time when they could say ignorant, racist things without fear of reprisal. There was no Internet, no Twitter, no instant media delivery mechanism.

What they’re really upset about is backlash and bitter that they’re still on the wrong side of history. What they learn is that the vast majority of people in 2014 don’t care for racist or bigoted points of view.

I don’t long for a time when it was OK to say hateful things. The First Amendment allows it, but after that you’re on your own. Those still lingering in racist and ignorant delusions should be heard and shouted down to face the consequences they deserve.

The First Amendment is alive and well. Unfortunately, so is racism, but human decency can, should and will have a tremendous impact on both.

• Kevin Lyons is news editor of the Northwest Herald. Reach him at 815-526-4505 or email him at kelyons@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinLyonsNWH.

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