Shame Is A Function Of the 1st Amendment


Monday marked the third birthday of Trig Palin, son of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.  Trig has two great challenges to face in life.  One is Down’s Syndrome.  The other is the mindless, bestial hatred of knuckle-dragging liberals.

Trig’s birthday prompted a fantastically deranged post from Wonkette blogger Jack Stuef, who decided it would be marvelous fun to call him “the greatest prop in history,” then slide downhill from there.  I’m not going to reprint any more of it here, and I wouldn’t dream of linking to it, but Dana Loesch of Big Government has preserved the whole thing in a hermetically sealed, germ-free, radiation-proof web page for posterity.  It is decorous to ignore such garbage, but it’s also important to make sure the people who wrote and published it are suitably ashamed.

When the post was brought to the attention of Wonkette’s advertiser Papa John’s Pizza, they recoiled in horror and pulled their ads.  Bravo, gentlemen.  Blogger Tommy Christopher declared on Twitter that “Wonkette’s reprehensible birthday greeting to Trig Palin is an irredeemable blight – I will never link them again.”  Bravo, Mr. Christopher.

Observing this symphony of outrage, conservative blogger Dan Riehl commented: “As a 1st Amendment absolutist, it’s interesting seeing so many good friends on the Right playing the PC police today re: Wonkette.” 

This earned Riehl a good deal of criticism, so he expanded his thoughts on his own web page:

“All I did was precisely what the many on the Right commenting on Wonkette are doing.  I observed something and commented on it. Any time I see a group of people, whatever their common identity, mass and go after this or that person, or publication, for publishing words they don’t like, I interpret it as one group attempting to demonize, or otherwise intimidate them, or it. 

It’s as fair and accurate an observation as are many of the denouncements of the Wonkette item I’ve seen.  So, get over it, already.  I support and encourage people’s right to say ugly things, even when I don’t like them very much.”

As always, the First Amendment static must be cleared from the conversation first.  No one is calling for a government agency to shut down Wonkette or drag Jack Stuef off to jail.  He had a right to create his noxious web page, others have a right to castigate him for it, and Dan Riehl has a right to criticize the castigation.  Papa John’s can choose not to associate itself with trash.  Freedom of speech is an endless contest of signal and response. 

Shame is a function of the First Amendment, not a violation of it.  Above the legal essence of free speech is layered the social construct of shame, which occurs when a great volume of people take strong exception to speech that is legal, but despicable.  This reaction can, itself, be criticized, but it cannot be outlawed.  There cannot be a law against outrage.

The problem is that invoking the First Amendment against the imposition of shame is an attempt to rule criticism out of bounds.  One infamous example came when Dixie Chicks complained that reduced record sales, following their strident criticism of President George Bush on foreign soil, were a violation of their First Amendment rights. 

Infidelity to the Constitution is, or should be, a serious charge.  Riehl is certainly entitled to declare he thinks the reaction to the Wonkette insult is overblown, but when he insinuates that conservatives are being unfaithful to the First Amendment, or indulging in the “political correctness” they have abhorred for so many years, he’s throwing a red flag on a legitimate play.  The early, virulent strains of political correctness emerged from campus speech codes, where coercion was involved.

 One cannot fairly “support and encourage people’s right to say ugly things” without also supporting the right of others to react, perhaps strenuously.  The power to decide where the legitimate exchange of ideas ends is tantamount to controlling ideas.  Nobody forced Wonkette, or Papa John’s, to do anything today.  I have no problem condemning the former and applauding the latter.  An appreciation for free speech does not require us to leave our taste at the door… or tolerate vicious insults against three-year-old children in silence.  Let the outraged defenders of ugly slander against a boy with Down’s Syndrome pressure Papa John’s into restoring their advertising to Wonkette, if they dare.

Happy belated birthday, Trig!  I hope you like pizza!  I believe I’ll have some for dinner tonight myself.