Hank Williams Jr. tests free-speech tolerance

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Here’s a quick two-step self-test of how you really feel about free expression.

Step one: What did you think about Hank Williams Jr. comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler? Should Monday Night Football stop using Williams’ “Are You Ready for Some Football?”

Step two: How did you feel about Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks telling a London audience that she was embarrassed that President Bush was from her home state of Texas? Was Cumulus Broadcasting right to ban the Dixie Chicks from airplay on their radio stations?

Those who defended the Dixie Chicks on free-speech grounds should be among those most vocal about Williams’ right to share his views.

And those who applauded the trampling and burial of Dixie Chicks CDs should now be calling for a boycott of Williams.

Of course, it doesn’t work that way. There’s a tendency to defend the free speech of those whose views we share, while condemning the abrasive comments of those on the other side. Too often we let politics trump principles.

Yet the parallels between the two incidents are clear. In both cases, musicians publicly insulted the president and were unapologetic when criticized for their comments.

Yes, Williams’ attack on Obama was particularly harsh and Maines made the comment in another country just as our nation was about to go to war. But at the core, these incidents are the same: entertainers using their visibility to criticize the government.

To be clear, there’s no First Amendment issue in either case. This wasn’t the government censoring citizens. But implicit in our free-speech guarantees is a recognition that one of this nation’s greatest strengths is the free flow of ideas and opinions, no matter how pointed.

Some would argue that free speech isn’t free, and that you have to suffer the consequences when you say something  particularly incendiary. But shouldn’t the price of provocative speech be public criticism, not censorship and economic boycotts?

For my part, I’m perfectly happy to hear the Dixie Chicks on my radio and have Hank Williams Jr. open my football games. Support for free speech shouldn’t hinge on the current resident of the White House.

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