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Why the Helen Thomas Case Makes Me Nervous

Should a journalist lose her job over an offensive comment?

David Harsanyi
June 9, 2010

A few months ago, a picture appeared in The Denver Post. On a local college campus—an alleged stronghold of free inquiry and debate—a leftist student, protesting some perceived injustice, was holding a sign that argued:

"Hate speech is not free speech!"

Perhaps this earnest 20-something had not fully thought through her illiberal position on "tolerable" political speech. Perhaps she was part of that broader movement that sees "hate" everywhere among its ideological opponents. Either way, it's tragic that so many young people misunderstand the idea of open debate -- or simply devalue liberty.

Some people accept that certain things cannot—rather than should not—be said. Beyond the worrisome assaults on free speech (fairness doctrines, higher education, etc.) there is a slipperier concern. Which brings me to Helen Thomas' now infamous and career-ending comment, in which she helpfully suggested that the Jews get "the hell out of Palestine."

True, I find some comfort in knowing that this unprofessional crackpot never will haunt a president, common sense, or the public again. But I wince at the rapidity of her demise. And I feel a nagging anxiety about a journalist's losing her job over nothing more than a controversial statement.

"She should lose her job over this," former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said before Thomas gave in to a forced retirement. "As someone who is Jewish and as someone who worked with her and used to like her, I find this appalling."

Cliff May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former roving reporter for Hearst (which syndicated Thomas' column), in a letter urged the company "strenuously" to "cut all ties" with Thomas "as quickly as possible."

It seems an odd reaction, especially for conservatives, who are accused regularly of thought crimes and hate speech by outfits like Media Matters, which are in the business of smearing and discrediting those who disagree with them.

But an opinion—in Thomas' case, an ugly opinion that in all probability is more common than some people might believe—is no more than the strength of the logic behind it. As a regular defender of the moral right of Israel to fight the theocrats and fascists whom Thomas embraces, I never thought she was very credible or articulate on the topic, and she is unworthy of the over-the-top reactions of critics.

Nevertheless, at this point in her career, the 89-year-old was still a columnist for Hearst newspapers. A columnist offers provocative views. You don't have to like Thomas, and you don't have to read her columns, but having a disdain for Jews in general or Israel in particular is hardly the most offensive thought that's kicking around.

Though I don't hold an earthly stake in debates over God, Bill Maher's ludicrous anti-Catholic rants or a tome from a polemist like Christopher Hitchens (who condemns all religion as a dangerous farce) might be "appalling" to rather large swaths of the public. Are certain topics off the table?

Of course, I am not suggesting that Thomas has a birthright to sit in the front row at a White House news conference (a situation that hasn't made sense for at least three decades) or that anyone has an inalienable right to pontificate about the world for a newspaper chain or anyone else.

And no, I can't mourn the loss of Helen Thomas' detestable opinions. But at the same time, I can't help but feel some trepidation about the ease in which some voices—in this case, one voice that is probably more honest than others of similar ideological disposition—can be expelled from the conversation simply for offending.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post and the author of Nanny State. Visit his website at www.DavidHarsanyi.com. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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