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FEBRUARY 12, 2013 6:46AM

Free Speech Fever

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However much they may flirt with policy discussion, Presidential State of the Union addresses are ultimately an exercise in political theater. The nature of the event dictates that the President is the unquesitoned star of the show, but it's not surprising that other players are eager for a share of the spotlight.

South Carolina congressman Joe "You Lie" Wilson set a pretty high bar, but Texas Representative Steve Stockman seems up the challenge, in part because he's bringing reinforcements. Stockman, whose issues with President Obama are well-documented has invited a guest who may have even more grievances with the President - yes, Ted Nugent. The invitation of the Motor City Madman points to a problem for the GOP, though perhaps not for the obvious reasons

The problem isn't that Nugent is a somewhat overrated guitarist with chicken-hawk leanings who crapped in his pants repeatedly to get himself declared unfit for service in Vietnam but heaps inflammatory and sometimes foul rhetoric on anyone who doesn't fit his narrow view of American values, though, all those things are true. The problem lies with Republican elected officials and, in Mitt Romney's case, credible candidates who refuse to repudiate Nugent no matter how much crap he scrapes out of his old pants to flings at people who love their country just as much as he claims to do. 

Patriotism has historically been the last refuge of the scoundrel, but many American politicians seem to have concluded that invoking "freedom of speech" is their best protection from actual principle. When a de facto political figure like Nugent or Trump makes a comment that pole-vaults over the line between discourse and disgusting, too many politicians are happy to wrap themselves in the Bill of Rights and invoke the First Amendment to insulate themselves without having to take an actual stand that risks alienating supporters. This is, of course, hypocritical and cowardly and as such misunderstands the point of this fundamental right. 

Freedom of speech, that is to say freedom from government regulation of speech, was incorporated into the Constitution so that the citizens of a country that fought a war for freedom could speak truth to power without fear of government reprisal. What that right does not convey, however, is freedom from consequences. Just because the government is precluded from restricting speech, except for narrow exceptions in the area of public safety, doesn't mean that an elected official doesn't have an obligation to call out inflammatory language for what it is. That's something Senator/candidate Obama came to understand, albeit reluctantly, about the speeches of Reverend Jeremiah Wright and something that self-identified patriots like Stockman (and Nugent) will never appreciate.

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Nugent, Trump, Wright, Maher, Limbaugh and the whole host of talking heads have squandered the gift of free speech and reduced it to a preserver form of entertainment. The point of inflammatory speech is it sells. Millions are to be made from harnessing the anger and frustration of of millions into voting blocks and markets that cannot be ignored. Politicians as well as marketers do not care who the audience is as long as that audience is voting and buying.