Shots Across the Bow

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Free Speech Carries a High Price

Speaking our minds is one of the quintessential traits we think of as American. And that makes sense; our country was born when we told a king exactly what we thought of him and his rules. In fact, we thought the right to speak our minds freely was so important that we made sure that it was one of the few rights specifically mentioned by our Constitution.

But just because that right is important to us does not mean that it comes cheaply. In fact, just the opposite is true; the right to speak out freely is one that has always carried a high price. People have been imprisoned, tortured, even killed for saying what they believe. We generally don't go for that here in America, but there are still things you can lose by speaking out.

Like your job, for instance.

Bill Hobbs is the latest in a growing list of bloggers who have lost their jobs, seen their businesses suffer and/or fail, or had their anonymity stripped at the hands of folks who didn't like something they wrote. Bill drew a cartoon to illustrate the cowardice and hypocrisy of a media cowed by threats of violence from a fringe element of Islam. The same folks who wrote strongly worded editorials supporting works like he 'Piss Christ' refused to print the Mohammed cartoons, claiming that they had a duty to be 'sensitive' and 'tolerant' of other religions. Bill was angry at this hypocrisy and he went on the attack.

It's not surprising that the media he attacks should strike back; in fact it is to be expected. But there's another angle to this story that makes it disturbing. The attack was delayed. The cartoon was posted in February, about 6 weeks ago, with absolutely no impact. Nobody complained; it seems that Hobbs only became a big enough target when he became associated with the Bryson campaign. Reading Spragens' article, it seems to me that attacking Hobbs was simply a way to go after Jim Bryson. After sliming Hobbs, Spragens goes to great lengths to repeatedly link him with Bryson and Belmont College, not to mention this rather cryptic comment:
Bryson and Belmont, it should be noted, are both faith-based institutions.


So you can take your pick here. You can believe that Bill lost his job for creating an offensive cartoon in an attempt to halt the growing spinelessness of the American press, or you can believe he lost his job for supporting the wrong candidate. Neither choice paints a flattering picture of modern society does it?

Isn't it ironic that some members of the press, the institution charged with maintaining the free flow of news and ideas, instead act more often to suppress ideas they find dangerous through intimidation and personal attacks, or by slanting their coverage, to ignore stories that do not support their preconceived point of view?

So, what's to be done? Should Bill have some legal protections for speaking his mind? Should Belmont be forced to continue to employ a man they apparently find embarrassing?

It's hard for me to say, mainly because I look at the issue from a slightly different angle. The question I ask is this:

"Would you want to continue to work for an employer if the only way to do so was to keep your mouth shut about what you believe?"

I say no, I wouldn't. And based on his statements to date, Bill answers in the same way. Others choose differently; they hide either their beliefs or their names. They value their employment more than they value their right to speak their mind. They speak anonymously, or choose not to speak at all. I'm not saying that their choice is wrong; every person has to set their priorities as best they can. They may have families, or make work in a field where the predominant philosophies run counter to their own. They may believe that it is better to work quietly from within to achieve change. There are many legitimate reasons for some to choose silence over speech.

It's not a choice I can make.

I've written things in this blog that can potentially keep employers from hiring me. I'm a libertarian, the bastard child of American politics. That means I can irritate the left and the right with equal facility. To make matters worse, I'm a small l libertarian, which means I irritate the Big L libertarians almost as much.

But anybody who googles me, and reads some of this blog will know exactly what kind of a person they are hiring. Look at it this way, they have four years of resume to look through. They'll know for certain if there's a good match or not. If so, they'll hire me; if not, they won't, and that will be the best for both parties involved.

And it seems to me that Bill is in that place right now. He is paying a price for speaking out, for getting involved. But he was willing to pay that price, and is moving on with dignity.

As for Belmont College, they're being raked over the coals in the blogosphere now, and I don't know that they totally deserve it. After the Spragens hit piece, they were placed in a very awkward position. The cartoon was offensive, particularly when taken out of its context as a protest. The college had to react. It would have been nice to see them stand up to the pressure, but that's an unrealistic expectation, given the precarious nature of collegiate funding.

So where does that leave us? Well, let's sum it all up.
  • Politics can be an ugly business.
  • Some folks don't care who they hurt to achieve their aims.
  • Freedom of speech does not always mean freedom from consequences.
  • Sometimes, the cost of speaking out is less than the cost of remaining silent.
  • Finally, a man acts according to the dictates of his conscience, then accepts the consequences of those actions, without whining or evasion.
Posted by Rich
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All this speculation is just that. Bill is no martyr for free speech and has never said anything but that he left Belmont amacably.

The university attorney says it is a personell issue and not a free speech issue. Who knows what (else) Bill may have done that lead to his departure.

Unless Bill steps up to the plate and says it is a free speech issue, then the rest of this is baseless noise and speculation.

And, not that it matters, but I think Belmont became a university over ten years ago.
Posted by Wes  on  04/19  at  06:18 AM

Wes, I think you're being a bit naive. Bill left Belmont with no previous warning immediately after the story broke. While it may be speculating to link the two events, it is the simplest scenario, and therefore most likely to be true.

As for the split being amicable, and the University's statement that it was a personnel issue, these are the usual phrases to cover a forced resignation. It protects the University from liability, while allowing the former employee to seek new employment without a blemish on his record. Both sides get something by maintaining the fiction. As such, it would be very surprising if Bill were to "step up to the plate," as you suggest.
Posted by rich  on  04/19  at  08:42 AM

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