Commentary: Free speech comes with responsibilities

INDIANAPOLIS – Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., announced that she was stepping down from the U.S. House of Representatives just as the battle over right-to-work legislation reaches a crescendo in the Indiana House of Representatives.

Giffords said she was resigning her seat in order to concentrate on her recovery from wounds she suffered a little more than year ago when a gunman shot her and 18 other people, killing six. The attack is believed to have been an attempt to assassinate her.

The gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, was taken into custody and has been determined to be mentally ill. Investigators have determined that he was a steady subscriber and contributor to publications and web sites spouting some of the angriest and most hate-filled conspiracy theories around.

He tried to kill Giffords – and ended up killing six other people, including a conservative federal judge – because he wanted to erase her from public life.

As I write this, advocates for a measure that would make it illegal for Indiana businesses to require employees to pay fees to a union and opponents of the measure bombard the state’s airwaves with attack ads.

The spots in favor of right to work accuse specific Democrats of ignoring their responsibilities and denying workers rights of free choice.

The spots opposed to right to work accuse Republican leaders of being little more than tyrants and waging class war on the working class.

The ads are the culmination of a struggle that has seen organized labor pack the Statehouse and chant, among other things, that Gov. Mitch Daniels is a liar. Members of the House – who are supposed to be governed by rules of conduct – routinely have called their opponents liars, cheats and demagogues and done their best to whip their bases of support into frenzies of rage.

The people who foment this kind of anger always are quick to say that they aren’t responsible for what the Jared Lee Loughners do. They point to his apparent instability and argue that they can’t be held accountable for what a crazy person might do.

And they’re right – legally, they aren’t responsible for what someone like a Lougher might do.

The question of moral responsibility is a different matter.

I want to be clear about something before I proceed. I support freedom of expression and thought in all forms. I have spent virtually all of my adult life defending both in one capacity or another.

People often think that we protect free speech and a free press in this country because we believe that speech or expression cannot be harmful – that there are no consequences from saying or writing something.

Actually, the opposite is true.

We have a First Amendment because, as Americans, we know that speech and thought – ideas and the communication of them – matter. That they have consequences.

We know that we cannot achieve our potential as a country or as citizens if we do not allow for people to debate vigorously.

And we know that human beings who cannot say what they believe are not really free.

We accept an awful lot of dissonance and discord because of this belief. But the argument for freedom never has been that it is tidy or efficient or even safe. The argument for freedom is that it is free.

And people deserve to be free.

Because there are few if any legal restraints upon what we as Americans can say, the moral responsibility for the consequences of what we choose to say is all ours. We can’t outsource that accountability to the government or blame it on someone else.

That’s why my advice to the leaders of both sides of the increasingly vitriolic debate over right to work is this.

Anger and rage are wonderful motivators and they are great ways to fire up an audience.

Having an audience, though, means that people are listening.

One of them might be someone like Jared Lee Loughner.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits,” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of The Statehouse File, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students

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