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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of October 1 - 7, 2003

Opinion Column

The battered
First Amendment

Commentary by PAT MURPHY

If the First Amendment were a boxer, it would be punch drunk and puffy with scars from more than 200 years of use, abuse, misuse, misunderstanding and controversy.

Yet the First Amendmentís 45 words remain strong and still the basic charter of American freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly, and petitioning the government.

Now itís in the news more than ever, engulfed in issues and disputes about its fairness, equal application and abuse.

Watch for it to be invoked in the brewing White House dispute over the name of a CIA operative leaked to conservative columnist Robert Novak.

Two White House officials are said to have told six Washington journalists the name of former U.S. ambassador Joseph C. Wilsonís wife as a CIA "operative." Novak, the only one to publish her name, received the information, according to Ambassador Wilson, as reprisal for his debunking the later-discredited White House claim that Iraq was trying to buy uranium ore in Niger.

Leakers could face 10 years in prison. But what about Novak, who literally acted as a "fence" in peddling illegal information? Is he a criminal accessory?

Novak will claim First Amendment privileges and probably not be prosecuted. He undoubtedly wonít reveal sources who broke intelligence laws, despite his avowed tough-on-crime politics.

Elsewhere, telephone solicitors are pleading First Amendment protections to justify annoying dinner hour telephone solicitations.

Maybe. However, co-opting telephones paid for by households to harass people with unsolicited messages is not within the Firstís meaning as I understand it.

Critics target the press about First Amendment abuses, citing smut in tabloids and highbrow newspapers for not publishing certain material. But thatís the First Amendment: the press is free to print or not print what it wishes, fairly or not.

But, even speech has limits. Screaming "Fire!" in a crowded theater if thereís no fire is illegal. Slander and libel are not protected. But here again there are exceptions: libelous statements often are repeated in a privileged surrounding such as a courtroom or on the floor of Congress.

In addition, some people are harder to slander and libel than othersósuch as "public figures" (i.e. politicians, celebrities).

The provision for unfettered religious freedom always is controversial. How come Congress can open sessions with prayers but school classrooms may not? Why is U.S. currency engraved with "In God We Trust" but the Ten Commandments canít be displayed in an Alabama courthouse lobby? Baffling.

And again, a controversial constitutional amendment is being proposed to criminalize abuse of the U.S. flag by protestors who claim free speech.

Even First Amendment disciples create goofy contradictions.

An Arizona State University journalism professor recently boycotted the appearance of CBS "60 Minutes" curmudgeon Andy Rooney at an ASU-sponsored event because Rooney belittled female TV commentators at pro football games.

The professor exercised his free speech right to protest Rooney who, yes, simply exercised his free speech right to make a fool of himself by demeaning women.



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