All Commentary
Friday, March 1, 2002

Free to Be Stupid

Washington, D.C., Does Not Have a Monopoly on Idiocy

America is a great country. What better evidence is there than the opportunity for people to say the stupidest, most witless things?

Many people probably think that Washington, D.C., has a monopoly on idiocy. Not true. While the nation’s capital is often, indeed usually, void of common sense and good judgment, dumb comments sometimes rise outside the capital. Consider the esteemed bookstore chain of Barnes & Noble. It regularly hosts author book signings. Among its recent guests was Bill Ayers, university professor and author of Fugitive Days: A Memoir. It turns out that as a 1960s radical Ayers expressed himself by planting bombs. As he told the New York Times, “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.”

Hosting an avowed terrorist seems particularly odd after September 11, but Barnes & Noble Vice President Mary Ellen Keating decried “censorship” in refusing to cancel his appearance after customer complaints. Canceling would have been good judgment, not censorship.

Ayers sought to help by writing a letter in which he termed the events of September 11 “an appalling crime” and avowed that he “never intended to injure or kill other human beings.” Perhaps he was using kinder, gentler bombs. But Ms. Keating went further, claiming that to cancel his planned appearance “would be to give in to our fears, and ultimately to validate the position of our enemies.”

Would Al Qaeda terrorists really celebrate if Barnes & Noble decided not to let an admitted domestic terrorist promote his book? As James Taranto mordantly observes in his “Best of the Web” compilation for the Wall Street Journal‘s, “Terrorists win if we don’t let terrorists cash in on their past crimes? This has got to be the most twisted use of the ‘we can’t let them win’ cliché yet.”

Criticism of the refusal to support speech with which one disagrees has made it into the Los Angeles Times. Freelance writer Nora Vincent is tired of all the complaints about the stupid things academics and celebrities have said about terrorism, war, and more. She’s appalled at the argument that exercising free speech means being willing to accept the consequences of doing so–as in, if people don’t like what you say, they can call you a jerk and treat you like one. Criticism is okay she says, but not “putting a gun to the speaker’s head,” which would make the First Amendment “meaningless.” Actually, doing so would violate the criminal law and, appropriately, land you in jail.

Firing someone would also violate the First Amendment, argues Vincent: “After all, how free can your speech be if your job is in peril if you say the wrong thing?” Unfortunately, she obviously knows nothing about the First Amendment, which only applies to governments. And appropriately so. Say her hometown newspaper, the New York Times, hired a columnist to write about world affairs and that person turned out to be a Nazi. Would it really violate the First Amendment to fire him?

By the same token, she writes, “yanking advertisements from network television shows should also be unconstitutional.” To “remain true to the spirit of the First Amendment,” Vincent argues, we should pass a law preventing “advertisers from revoking their support for shows.” In fact, any show unwilling to risk having its funding pulled can ask for a contractual guarantee, and any advertiser is free to say no.

The Library and the Flag

In Boulder, Colorado, an employee asked the library to hang a flag in the glass entrance. Art Director Marcellee Gralapp said no, it “could compromise our objectivity” and she wanted “people of every faith and culture” to “feel welcome.”

I’m not much of a flag waver, but how would this compromise the library’s “objectivity” and make people feel unwelcome? Boulder is in the United States, is it not? Perhaps the problem was space–at the same time that the library was refusing to allow the flag to hang, it displayed 21 ceramic, uh, penises in its gallery in an exhibit titled “Hung Out to Dry.” A sign alerted visitors that “this exhibit contains mature material that may be objectionable to some.” So much for making everyone feel welcome. (A disgruntled patron soon absconded with the exhibit, later returning it to police. Local authorities, apparently upset with his variant of “performance art,” brought criminal charges against him.)

Anne Muller of Wildlife Watch doesn’t like hunting. But not because of animals. She fears terrorism. Hunting, she explained, “is just a wonderful opportunity for someone who would want to do a terrorist act.”

Thus she urged New York state to suspend the hunting season: “Armed and camouflaged individuals can get close to chemical, agricultural, business facilities, gas pipelines, electrical power lines, substations, transformers, and airports. Local police and environmental conservation officers will merely slough off concerns saying that the individuals are ‘just hunting.’”

Because that’s what they would be doing. As for terrorism, that is more likely to come from radical environmentalists. Groups like the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front have been busy, even after September 11, damaging oil-exploration equipment, attacking research facilities, burning a primate research center, and firebombing a corral for wild horses. A few more private people roaming around with guns would probably help stop this sort of terrorism.

There are also stupid people in other countries. Very stupid people.

The British boy band Blue cut a video in New York City on September 11 and witnessed the destruction of the World Trade Center. The band members were later interviewed by the Sun newspaper. When the WTC attack came up, three of the members seemed appropriately horrified. But not 18-year-old Lee Ryan. He asked, “Who gives a [expletive deleted] about New York when elephants are being killed?” Why, he added, “Animals need saving and that’s more important. This New York thing is being blown out of proportion.”

His mates tried to shut him up. His music label took him to the woodshed, and he later apologized for expressing himself “in a very foolish and offensive way.” Yes, it was that. We all do dumb things in life. But some people do extraordinarily dumb things. What value would freedom have if it did not include the opportunity to say the most stupid, witless things?

Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books.

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.