Cook On Concord: Imus firing raises questions on free speech and decency

The 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of free speech, specifically prohibiting the passage of laws that interfere with free expression of ideas. As is noted often, just because things are legal does not make them right.

First, Don Imus, a prominent radio personality who I admit to never having heard, got himself in a jam for making insulting and stupid remarks about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. The furor that resulted ultimately resulted in his being fired by CBS Radio and his broadcast dropped by MSNBC. Apparently, the comments were consistent with his style over the last decades and were not a surprise to his regular listeners. They were so egregious, however, that he was canned.

After Mr. Imus was fired, there was a hue and cry about what speech is appropriate, allowable and legal. More ink was wasted on this subject than a reasonable person can imagine and, throughout the debate, the underlying point was stressed that people are protected in saying whatever they want. Examples of people who had used similarly bad and disparaging language were cited.

At the end of the day, it was estimated that the broadcast media lost a $100 million property and speculation abounded over whether Mr. Imus will reappear, stronger than ever.

On another front, the events surrounding the late Anna Nicole Smith, a former Playboy magazine centerfold, the circumstances of her death, the identity of the father of her child and other juicy tidbits were spread across the media and seemed to be the ever-present feature on the especially tacky show that follows ABC Evening News on Channel 9, “Entertainment Tonight.”

What do both of these matters have in common? First, they demonstrate that proper conduct and taste and basic decency and morality are not the standards by which we conduct ourselves today.

Second, notwithstanding First Amendment rights to free speech, the media ought to know better and police itself.

Third, they bear out the oft-cited proposition that “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if we all demanded better conduct, higher standards and turned off those channels on which this tacky and inappropriate stuff appears? (There, now, I feel better!)


The tragic events at Virginia Tech in mid-April were surrounded by huge media attention, this time natural and deserved. While we may have learned more about individual cases and specifics than we wanted, there were some important lessons in that sad series of events, too. A couple that come to mind to this university trustee are:

• When there are students with problems, it behooves everyone on campus to point them out so that problem individuals do not fall through the cracks and, hopefully, receive help.

• If it were not so easy to get guns, they would not be used so often and handgun laws are probably too lax, especially in Virginia.

• Undoubtedly, it is not the fault of the university in question that it does not catch mental illness in all of its characteristics and manifestations and the blame game is not particularly helpful.

• The so-called Buckley Amendment, a federal statute making the sharing of student information difficult, needs to be examined if, as reported, various faculty members who had concerns about the shooter felt that they could not share that information because of student privacy rules.

Especially on a college campus, where free expression, exploration and camaraderie are important, people need to share concern for each other and watch out for problems.

In a touching message, Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc sent the following letter to the president of Virginia Tech. I think it is worth quoting from here:

“As colleagues and peers please accept the sympathies of the Southern New Hampshire University community and know that you and your students are in our thoughts and prayers …

“Virginia Tech is a wonderful institution and we will never know if within the ranks of those lost was the creator of a future cancer cure, a political leader, the next great American poet. Our campuses are the seedbed of future accomplishment and we have been robbed of what might have been. Of course, all of that sad conjecture pales in the face of the immediate and inconsolable grief felt by parents, friends, faculty, and staff. For that there are no words or adequate offerings except our own shared sympathy offered from afar.

“As your university makes its way through the difficult days and weeks ahead please call on us in any way you need. I can’t imagine what that might be today, but the opportunity to do anything at all would be a welcome respite from the helplessness we feel. In the meantime, we are all thinking of you.”

Well said, Dr. LeBlanc. Let us all hope we do not have to experience this kind of tragedy again.

Brad Cook is a partner in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups.

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