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Posted: February 7, 2010 12:00 a.m.

Thicker skin required

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel caught heat last week when he referred to a group of liberal Democrats as "retarded." President Obama's senior political aide must've felt as if he'd stepped in a yellow jacket hole after sticking both feet in his mouth. Vocal, visceral criticism from varied quarters, including the president's senior political advisor, David Axelrod - whose 27-year-old daughter has a developmental disability - forced Emanuel to immediately try and staunch the bleeding.

Emanuel first made a public apology before meeting privately with advocates for people with disabilities, among them Timothy Shriver, chairman and chief executive of the Special Olympics. Shriver is no stranger to the White House; he'd had a prior conversation with the president, himself, after Obama appeared on a late night talk show alluding to his bowling ability in a way disparaging Special Olympians.

While it's true that the president of The United States of America and members of his administration should reflect the highest standards of moral and ethical behavior, it's also true that a larger, more critical principle is at issue here.

That principle is our Constitution's First Amendment, which holds that anyone offended by the use of the word "retarded," off-color jokes, rude or sarcastic caricatures of various ethnic groups, and even blatant pornographic material need to grow thicker skin.

Remember Larry Flynt? A publisher of pornographic magazines, Flynt successfully fought multiple court cases in the late 20th century defending his right to publish pornography and to have it displayed and sold in plain view anywhere other publications were sold.

Americans were astounded. Anyone holding mainstream, sensible, down-home moral standards were outraged when even the United States Supreme Court ruled in Flynt's favor.

But the issue, you see, was not whether Flynt's material was fit for publication. Everyone knew it was filth that should never have seen the light of day. The issue was whether Flynt had the right as a United States citizen, under rule of law, to publish it.

And the United States Constitution, the law of our land, clearly states in that treasured, hallowed First Amendment:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

There's a long history of how the Supreme Court has treated obscenity and pornography, too long for a dissertation in this column. But in Roth v. United States (1957) the court ruled that the appropriate test for obscenity was "whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest."

In 1964, in Jacobellis v. Ohio Justice Potter Stewart famously stated that, although he could not precisely define pornography, "I know it when I see it."

But the point of departure for defining obscenity, as decided in the 1973 Miller v. California is this: "community" standards - not national standards - are applied whether the material appeals to the prurient interest; thus, material may be deemed obscene in one locality but not in another.

Now, I've got a few dogs in this fight. The first which comes to mind was a day some 25 years ago; I was stopped for a traffic signal behind one of those jacked-up pickup trucks that needs a step ladder to enter. The redneck owner had affixed an obscene bumper sticker, which was positioned at eye level for occupants of unmodified cars. My precious little girl, having just begun to sound out simple words, asked, "Daddy, what does ‘S*#% happens' mean?"

Hearing my innocent little child utter an obscenity like that ripped my heart open. I wanted to take a baseball bat to every window of that pickup, and if possible apply it upside the driver's head too.

But the First Amendment gave that jerk the right to inflict obscenity upon me from his bumper, as it gives all citizens the right to be crass, discourteous, rude and mean-spirited.

And thus I must say to anyone with a special needs child, whether profoundly or mildly disabled: just because Rahm Emanuel, President Obama, or any other citizen displays crass incivility through rude, insensitive, discourteous remarks, the First Amendment will not, and must not, go away.

I hate obscenity, profanity and bad manners as much as does anyone with a modicum of decorum. But if hearing the word "retarded" is offensive to you, I suggest you grow much thicker skin.

The current, popular movements to remove the "R" word from contemporary conversational speech amounts, basically, to attempted censorship. And in The United States of America, we must retain the right to be as discourteous, disparaging and insensitive as the law allows.

Nat Harwell is a long-time resident of Newton County. His columns appear regularly on Sundays.


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