The outraged response to Helen Thomas won't have a chilling effect on free speech; it was free speech

David Harsanyi is a little concerned that Helen Thomas’s swift take down after her “Jews out of Palestine and back to Germany and Poland” comments will have a chilling effect on free speech rights. He wrote this yesterday:

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 that Thomas embraces, I never thought she was very credible or articulate on the topic, and she is unworthy of the over-the-top reaction from 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 press 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.
About Harsanyi’s opinion that Thomas was “unworthy.” To many of us she was unworthy because we have considered her to be a crackpot for a long time. However, it was the White House Press Corps that gave her credibility, so most of her critics, including me, responded to her in that context.

Harsanyi’s characterization that she was “expelled from the conversation” is simply untrue. Helen Thomas has not been muzzled. She wasn’t hauled up in front of some Human Rights Commission (ask Mark Steyn about that). Nor was her right to free speech revoked. She has the exact same right to free speech now as she did before her declaration that the Middle East should be Jew-free. She may not have her job with Hearst, but that was Hearst’s decision to sack her. Ari Fleischer and Cliff May had nothing to do with that; they did nothing more than exercise the same right to free speech that Thomas did. Clearly, the folks at Hearst Publications and Nine Speakers decided they didn’t want her or her comments associated with their organizations, which is their prerogative.

The reality is there’s nothing preventing Helen Thomas from writing for another publication if she wants to. For all we know, there may be a number of publications that would welcome her pontifications on a Jew-free Middle East. Most of them are probably located in Iran and Hezbollah controlled Lebanon, but, who knows, there might be a few around the US who would like to buy her columns. In fact, Helen doesn’t even need a publishing company to be a part of the conversation. She already has a website. She can turn it into a full fledged blog if she wants to. As I’m sure she already knows, blogging is one of the fastest and easiest ways for anyone to opine on a limitless number of issues and topics. If there’s an audience in the blogosphere that’s interested in reading her posts, she can become quite influential. Take Sarah Palin, for example. She has been a become a big part of the conversation with nothing but a Facebook page.

So this argument that Helen Thomas has been drummed out of the conversation is ridiculous. If Helen Thomas is never heard from again, it will be because she expelled herself from the conversation.

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