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Bill Press is a syndicated columnist and the co-host of CNN's Crossfire, which airs Monday-Friday at 7:30 p.m.

Bill Press: Don't let terrorists kill free speech

By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services

WASHINGTON (Tribune Media Services) -- Americans are united in a war to stamp out terrorism. But terrorists have already won the first battle: they have succeeded in killing free speech.

What’s most shameful is: the terrorists didn't force us to scuttle free speech at the point of a gun or missile. We abandoned free speech on our own after September 11, by confusing patriotism for political correctness.

Take the case of Ann Coulter. This is a woman who I have debated countless times without finding one issue on which we could agree. If I said the sun were shining, she would insist it was miserable, cold and rainy. Not only that, she would reveal her ignorance in the most offensive tones possible.

Yet even I, political foe that I am, must rise to her defense. Ann Coulter was fired by the National Review Online for a column she posted on September 13 about Palestinians dancing with joy upon learning of the attacks on America. “We know who the homicidal maniacs are,” she asserted. “They are the ones cheering and dancing right now. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.”

Is there any way to defend those comments? No. But I can certainly defend her right to make them.

What Coulter said is hateful, inflammatory, racist and just plain wrong. Whether we love or loathe the Palestinians, they did not hijack four airliners and send them crashing into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Nineteen Saudis and Egyptians did. The worst thing for the world right now would be another crusade aimed at killing or converting all Muslims.

However, as obnoxious as her rhetoric is, she shouldn't have been fired for it. The job of a columnist, after all, is to express opinion. And the real test of free speech is tolerating speech that drives us bonkers, not speech that soothes the soul.

The same with Bill Maher, host of ABC’s “Politically Incorrect,” who’s also in hot water over recent comments. Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I've often appeared as a guest on Maher’s show, and he wrote the preface to my new book on spin.

But, even if he weren't a friend, I'd stick up for him, anyhow.

On September 17, his first broadcast after the tragedy, Maher hosted Dinesh D'Souza and Arianna Huffington. A third chair was left vacant in memory of Barbara Olsen, killed in the Pentagon crash, who had been scheduled to appear the week before. After Maher denounced the killings, D'Souza said he disagreed with those, like President Bush, who called the terrorists “cowards.” Maher agreed, and continued: “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away, that’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, that’s not cowardly.”

For that one statement, somehow misconstrued as an attack on America’s military, Maher’s show has been dropped by several local affiliates, most notably Washington, D.C.’s WJLA-TV. Two corporate sponsors, Sears and Fed-Ex, pulled their commercials. He was slammed by the Weekly Standard. Brent Bozell, head of the Media Research Center, called for all conservatives to boycott the show. And White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer warned: “There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.”

What an incredible display of corporate gutlessness, conservative stupidity and political fatuousness. Did everybody forget the name of the show is “Politically Incorrect?”

Fleischer, particularly, should know better. Even in wartime, Americans don't need a warning to watch what they say. In fact, just the opposite. It is in wartime when civil liberties are most threatened and free speech must be most fiercely defended. Besides, I'm still waiting for someone to explain what is so courageous about lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away.

And yes, my defense of free speech even extends to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who blamed the terrorist attacks on gays, feminists and liberals. As repulsive as their comments are, they are entitled to make them.

Preachers have a right to make total fools of themselves if they want to. So do comedians and columnists, including this one. God bless America.


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