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Speaking freely

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As an attorney who serves on the editori- al board of Southern Exposure, an investigative magazine known for challenging the status quo, I cherish the First Amendment. Perhaps that is why Hal Crowther's misconceived tirade in defense of John Rocker's "right to be an idiot" [Feb. 23] so enraged me.

Crowther's argument that major league baseball (aided by public "multicultural SWAT teams") infringed on Rocker's free-speech rights by sanctioning him for bigoted statements is simply wrong.

The First Amendment does not guarantee unlimited speech on private property--for example, I can forbid anyone from coming on my front porch and shouting racial epithets. Nor does it protect you when you work for private employers like the Atlanta Braves.

The First Amendment is designed to protect us from government-sanctioned censorship. But it is emphatically not designed to shield us from accountability.

Just as tiresome as Crowther's incorrect interpretation of the First Amendment is the gleeful tone with which he joins the chorus of hip anti-P.C. standard bearers who decry attempts to hold individuals accountable as thought-policing. Specifically, his dull and failed attempt to argue that workplace rules that protect women and others from historically hostile environments broadly infringe on free-speech rights combines powerful rhetoric with ghastly little substance.

Crying wolf about the First Amendment is dangerous. It belittles its true value. As a journalist, Crowther should know better. In Rocker's case, it also risks confusing the issue. Since no mayor or sheriff told Rocker what he could or could not say, the only real question is whether he should be held accountable for his comments.

On this question, Crowther seems to suggest we should dismiss Rocker's remarks as the unimportant ramblings of yet another bigot in a world marred by violence and hatred. I happen to think that we can protect free-speech rights and hold Rocker accountable as someone who benefits from every ticket sold for an Atlanta Braves game in the diverse county of Queens, N.Y.

As often before, Hal Crowther got it almost just right. He's right about the excessive vilification of John Rocker in a world full of real villains. Crowther also brilliantly reveals the hypocrisy and dangers in our society's eagerness to suspend First Amendment protections when offensive speech is involved (i.e., precisely when such protections are needed).

However, there is more than a little irony in the key reason Crowther cites for being tolerant of Rocker's "idiotic" remarks. He argues that one could hardly expect intelligence, sensitivity or anything other than ignorance from Rocker because he is from a rural community and went to rural schools. Having spend my adult life working and sometimes living in rural communities across our state, nation and world, I can assure Independent readers that the level of prejudice, stupidity and poor judgment is no greater among rural people than among their urban and suburban counterparts.

Crowther's offensive stereotyping of rural people--while also fully protected by the First Amendment--is not particularly different in kind or magnitude from Rocker's equally ill-considered remarks. The only difference I see is that blanket condemnations of rural people, places and schools are far more socially acceptable these days among the media and the largely metropolitan public than parallel slurs based on race, sexual orientation or ethnicity.

Crowther's remarks about rural people do not make him an idiot, but they do undermine his moral high ground in an otherwise perceptive commentary.

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