We all love free speech — right up to the moment when it offends us. And that’s the moment that really defines a person’s commitment to a principle sacred to a free society.
HBO’s Bill Maher is one of the most daring defenders of free speech, so it should come as no surprise that he spoke out against the backlash that followed the remarks of newly arrived Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen, who said “I love Fidel Castro,” explaining that he admired the Cuban dictator’s ability to survive decades of CIA assassination plots.
Guillen was suspended for five games and may have lost his job if not for a groveling apology to the Cuban exile community of South Florida.
The website Mediaite — perhaps eager to prove that it’s an equal opportunity critic of wrongheaded cable news commentary — castigated Maher with this blog post, awarding the Castro monologue its prize for “most outrageously offensive statement” of the week.
The writer, Frances Martel, argues that a “depraved” Maher misses the point in comparing Castro’s Cuba to the autocratic regimes with which America has diplomatic relations. She writes, “Not all of Maher’s screed is logically wrong; it’s morally wrong.”
Personally, I find it hard to trust someone who claims the authority of defining moral rights from wrongs as it relates to speech.
And Martel doesn’t realize that Maher never said that Castro is a morally righteous leader. Rather, Maher said that in a world where America has given its support to a range of bloodthirsty ogres, Castro is… well… Shrek.
The upshot of Martel’s commentary — as well as the rage by Cuban conservatives in South Florida — is that we Americans should stick to the script: Castros are bad, mmmkay?
As Maher points out, that is de facto censorship. Whatever moral rightness we attain by universally condemning Castro’s human rights violations comes at the expense of our freedom of expression. If Guillen isn’t free to say he loves Castro, and if Maher is “morally wrong” to defend Guillen, then we really are living in a less free society.
Of course, Maher is famously progressive in his politics. So the real test is whether he defends free speech that offends his progressive sensibilities.
Conveniently enough, there is a recent media kerfuffle that provides such a test: Rush Limbaugh’s incendiary remarks about Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law school student who testified in favor of a private mandate for contraception costs to be covered by health-care plans.
Among other insults, the conservative radio host called Fluke a “prostitute.” The remarks nearly cost Limbaugh his job, as liberals launched a crusade to chase advertisers from his program. Like Guillen, Limbaugh felt compelled to make an apology.
Few media figures disgust Maher as much as Limbaugh, but still Maher stuck up for Limbaugh out of respect for the value of free speech.
Maher insisted that he was not, in fact, defending Limbaugh but “defending living in a country where people don’t have to be afraid that they might go out of the bounds for one minute. Do we all want to be talking like White House spokesmen?”
Whether a commentary offends because it’s too far right or too far left, we all have access to all the weaponry we need to avenge that insult: our speech. So if you don’t like Maher’s opinions or Limbaugh’s, then speak up.
It’s when the offended parties go beyond that speech — whether that means targeting advertisers or claiming moral rightness — that one begins to feel queasy. In such instances, there’s wisdom in a quote attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”