Someone ought to thank Don Imus. Not for the offensive racial and sexual comments he made about the Rutgers women’s basketball team this month, but for the reminder that with the right to free speech comes the responsibility of self-regulation.
Imus himself does not seem to have learned this lesson – nor, apparently, has he had reason to.
In 1996, the New York Times reported that Imus had received some criticism for making rude comments to President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton at the Radio and Television Correspondents annual dinner, among them calling Clinton a “pot-smoking weasel” to his face.
The offense is not an isolated incident, and now it appears that even Don Imus is paying for failing to censor himself as CBS has cancelled his show, “Imus in the Morning.”
Words are powerful – and it seems we often remember this only after we have said something hurtful, only to remember those words cannot be taken back.
For public figures and those whose words are broadcast on live television or radio, words are even more powerful and more permanent. However, this is not to say that those who are not in the public eye should treat their free speech lightly.
For example, students at Tarleton State University surely felt they were exercising their right of free speech when they posted photographs from a Martin Luther King Jr. Day party in January.
However, the photographs caused an outrage, and the university held a forum to discuss racial issues on campus as a result.
As a society, we seem to expect less from one another in regards to speech today than we did 20 years ago. Coarse language and offensive jokes can be found online, on TV and on the street.
But now, more than ever, we need to remember how powerful our words are, both to offend others and to taint our own reputations. Employers, professors and peers have access to profiles and posts at Web sites like Facebook and MySpace, and an offhand comment could wind up affecting its author with harsh consequences.
The First Amendment protects the right to free speech – a right vital to democracy, a right that has spurred great changes and drawn attention to many injustices.
But with such an important right comes important responsibility. Honor that right and uphold your responsibility with your words. Words are more compelling when thought can back them up.