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Helen Thomas And The Rights Of Abhorrent Speech

A few years ago, I wrote about the absurdity of Helen Thomas's image as a paragon of journalistic integrity and the toughest member of the White House press corps. She made her name by being willing to endure the tedium of the stenographic role of the White House press far longer than any sentient reporter could bear. Then she switched to ranting mode, endearing herself to the left but doing nothing to actually hold her subject to account:

Her emergence as a liberal icon can be dated to the night of March 6, 2003, when President Bush committed the crime of failing to call on her at a press conference. Washington gasped at the shocking snub. It was "the first time anyone can remember her being stiffed," wrote Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz. Liberals rose up in outrage, the hack now a martyr at the hands of Bush. "President Bush broke a 43-year tradition by failing to call on Helen Thomas," complained Molly Ivins. "Afraid to take a question from an 82-year-old woman?"
The reality is that, of all the indignities the Bush administration has inflicted upon the media, Bush's slighting of Thomas is by far the most justifiable. She is, after all, now a columnist, and columnists do not typically get to ask questions at White House press conferences. More importantly, her questions are as wildly inappropriate for the forum of a press conference as they are ineffective. It is hard to imagine what admissions could be extracted from questions like, "Does the president think that the Palestinians have a right to resist 35 years of brutal occupation?" Or lectures like, "Why are we killing people in Iraq? Men, women, and children are being killed there. I mean, what is the reason we are there, killing people, continuing? It's outrageous."
At the historic occasion of the first press conference of Bush's first term, Thomas took the opportunity to ask: "Mr. President, why do you refuse to respect the wall between the church and state? And you know that the mixing of religion and government for centuries has led to slaughter. I mean, the very fact that a country has stood in good stead by having a separation--why do you break it down?" Amazingly, this subtle line of inquiry did not force Bush to confess his goal of an American theocracy.

Now Thomas is in trouble for bluntly confessing her views on the Middle East. Asked on camera about Israel, she said the Jews should leave all of Palestine, and return to Poland or Germany:

Conservatives are demanding that Hearst newspapers fire her. I think this would be a mistake. While there's no First Amendment right to be employed by a newspaper chain, I think public debate is poorly served by summary firings of those who spout controversial views.

Four years ago, the Polish embassy disinvited Tony Judt on account of his ardent anti-Zionism. A number of liberals, including many supporters of Israel, wrote to protest Judt's exclusion. I see little distinction between the circumstances -- Poland has no more obligation to associate itself with Judt's views than Hearst newspapers does to associate itself with Thomas's. There is, however, a cost when an individual is so obviously punished for expressing their beliefs, even by a private group. As the letter protesting Judt's cancellation argued:

In a democracy, there is only one appropriate response to a lecture, article, or book one does not agree with. It is to give another lecture, write another article, or publish another book. ...
Though we, the undersigned, have many disagreements about political matters, foreign and domestic, we are united in believing that a climate of intimidation is inconsistent with fundamental principles of debate in a democracy. The Polish Consulate is not obliged to promote free speech. But the rules of the game in America oblige citizens to encourage rather than stifle public debate.

The same principles seem to apply here.

I also see little distinction between the views themselves. Judt advocates dissolving the state of Israel and replacing it with a a bi-national democratic state where Jews can live happily and peacefully as minority citizens of Palestine. It's an utterly fantastical proposition. Thomas's anti-Zionism entails a no more preposterous alternative fantasy (Israel's Jews will immigrate to Germany, Poland, and perhaps the United States.) The main difference is that Thomas is a little more forthright about the fact that her preferred solution is to turn a large chunk of the world's Jews into refugees.

I find it morally abhorrent, but I don't think being an honest anti-Zionist should disqualify a person from working in journalism.