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Steve Hansen: Is the media taking political correctness too far?

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Posted: Tuesday, May 6, 2014 12:33 am

Biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall once wrote a comment attributed to the philosophy of Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

This was a common theme heard in America just a few years ago. But now, this idea apparently has lost all meaning.

Of course, I’m referring to the media frenzy over Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling. He reportedly told his female companion not to bring black people to his team’s basketball games.

No one is going to — nor should they — defend Sterling’s remarks. But when a viewpoint made during a private conversation is used to destroy one’s livelihood, then we all should take notice.

Our First Amendment rights of free speech need to be guarded with the utmost care, as we are about the only place left on Earth that still exercises this right.

Western countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom have traditionally supported unfettered dialogue for many years. But now, they are closing the doors with crimes of “hate speech” — using subjective definitions determined by the government.

Things have gone so far in the U.K. that the BBC News just reported a man named Paul Weston was arrested for quoting former Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill’s century-old book, “The River War,” had some statements on Islam that a passerby found “disgusting.” As a result, the political candidate was interviewed and arrested by police for “religious or racial harassment.”

Some might argue that we don’t have to worry about this in the United States. After all, the First Amendment is about protection from government suppression of free speech. But that does not apply to private citizens or organizations that take lawful action against someone with whom they disagree.

It’s hard to imagine a functioning democracy without the free exchange of ideas.

But unfortunately, whenever some in the media take up arms against those who step out of the politically correct box, politicians and government regulators are usually soon to follow.

Just the other day, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., proposed the “Hate Crime Report of 2014.” It would require the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an “advisory” agency to the president, to report to Congress the use of telecommunications that promote “crimes of hate.” Of course, “hate” is undefined, but it is fairly safe to assume that anything the political left finds distasteful (as happens in Canada), would certainly be included and judged by a committee of government-appointed “speech monitors.”

It is true that the chances of this act becoming law in the U.S. are slim because of our Bill of Rights protections. But if more judges are appointed to the bench who share the belief that speech and thought should be regulated by the government, as in almost every other country, then that threat can grow if new interpretations of our “living, breathing Constitution” become law.

Even the American Civil Liberties Union defends First Amendment rights and agrees that “truly offensive speech” is protected. Yet, when you stop to think about it, we wouldn’t need this right to protect “non-offensive speech” — would we?

Ironically, it’s the media that often drives stories about politically incorrect statements made by public figures. Yet, it is they who have the most to lose should the tables turn, and the government begins to suppress stories it finds politically offensive. At that point, free news sources and their reporters become victims of an autonomous entity that can ban “distasteful” commentary at will. As in totalitarian countries, the media then simply becomes a mouthpiece for those in power.

Sterling will have to live with the consequences of his statements. But if the obsession continues with what is said in private to trusted friends, then who knows where the next comment that offends someone will take place? Will it be on Facebook, Twitter, the Internet, or a secret recording by a trusted colleague?

Will it be unwittingly made by you or me?

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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