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King: A dual lesson in free speech, press

POSTED: January 3, 2008 5:02 a.m.
I have been writing for The Times for more than seven years. It has been a good relationship, and they have never refused to publish anything I sent, nor have they made more than minor edits, but there is always a first. The Times decided that my column for Sept. 25 was offensive, and they pulled it.

Interestingly enough, this was one day after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, spoke at Columbia University. There are several issues at stake here, and freedom of speech is just one of them. For the record, I believe Columbia University was right to let Ahmadinejad speak, and The Times was right to pull my column.

There's a lot of talk about "the liberal media," but when my column didn't appear in its usual Tuesday spot, several readers asked why. When I told them they complained about "the conservative media," whatever happened to freedom of speech, and so forth. However, there isn't a "liberal media" or a "conservative media." A newspaper, like any media outlet, is a business. To run a business, you have to consider the customer's needs and wants.

While I struggle mightily to explain my views in a way that will be understood and acceptable to a North Georgia audience, I am not always understood, or acceptable, and sometimes I just plain goof. My column for Sept. 25 was one of those times. The editors did me a favor by not publishing it.

No one can see into another's soul. People have two ways to explain themselves: by their words and by their deeds. I deal in words, and words are tricky. They can be misunderstood. They can mislead. Meanings change through time. Meanings shift from culture to culture; but words are the best we have. Language is how we communicate.

Today, when weapons of mass destruction can cross oceans on the back of a ballistic missile or national borders in a suitcase, we need to do a better job of communication. We need to listen to what the other guy has to say and try to understand his reasoning.

Around the beginning of September, the West received two new videotapes from Osama bin Laden. As in previous tapes, bin Laden tried to reach the American public. (A transcript and a link to the video itself are available on the Web.) Imbedded in his criticism of Western culture, bin Laden lists ways to stop the war in Iraq.

"There are two solutions for stopping it," he said. "The first is from our side, and it is to continue to escalate the killing and fighting against you. The second solution is from your side ..." and he continued to list his grievances with the United States.

My column was a reply, a letter to bin Laden suggesting a third way. We should stop the bloodshed and turn our efforts toward peace. Naive perhaps, but I happen to believe that ultimately it is the only way. However, to some the very idea of talking to "the enemy" is offensive.

I began my letter to bin Laden, "In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful." These are the opening words of the Quran and the proper way to address any Muslim, but they are offensive to some Christians.

Finally, I wrote that war is never holy. War is evil because "killing breeds hate, and hate breeds a disregard for humanity and God alike."

However, my words were clumsy and implied a certain disrespect for our own young men and women fighting in Iraq. The Times chose not to publish the column. The editors were acting neither as liberals nor conservatives; they were simply being good editors.

On the other hand, nobody was there to save Ahmadinejad from himself when he addressed Columbia University and the National Press Club. Ahmadinejad may actually believe he was speaking the truth, but what his audience heard was totally out of touch with reality.

"We (Iranians) are the freest people in the world." "The freest women in the world are women in Iran ... We don't have homosexuality in Iran."

Of course not. If homosexuality is a capital offense in Iran, they're all hiding or dead.

By allowing Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia, the man's twisted logic was exposed for all to see and judge. This is what free speech is all about. Speaking before a free audience, Ahmadinejad may even begin to see this for himself.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Originally published Oct. 9, 2007




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