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Is 1st Amendment on life support?

WASHINGTON – After a week of relentless e-mails and phone calls from people who were outraged at the prospect of a guy scheduling a press conference to make allegations about Barack Obama, I’m not sure extreme CPR could resuscitate the idea of free speech in some Americans’ minds.

The message they sent was that the guy is a crackpot and a felon and therefore should be prevented from speaking.

Let me fill you in on what happened.

As you might know, I’m the president of the National Press Club this year. The Press Club is a major venue for newsmaking in Washington. We invite lots of interesting, provocative and newsy people to speak here.

But we also rent our meeting rooms to people and groups. They might have a private event (a wedding reception or a conference limited to their own members). Or they might rent space to conduct a press conference.

When that happens, the NPC functions essentially as a conference center.

A couple of weeks ago, one of our meeting rooms was reserved by a customer for a press conference. As it turned out, Larry Sinclair wanted to say he had done illegal things with Obama.

There’s lots of stuff going on in Washington that competes for journalists’ time and attention. The likelihood of much media coverage for this fellow was pretty low because of the outlandishness of his claims and (if anyone had done a Google search on him) his dicey background.

But then a few blogs got wind of the event. They huffed and they puffed that Obama was being unfairly attacked. They detailed Sinclair’s allegations. They stoked their readers to try to force the National Press Club to silence him.

The messages were along the lines of: “How can you allow a criminal to speak?” “Please deny Mr. Larry Sinclair the opportunity to lie to the public.” “Can anyone just buy media coverage?”

Hundreds of phone calls and e-mails poured in to my NPC office from people who saw Sinclair’s rental agreement as evidence that the national media condoned his allegations.

Had Sinclair paid a PR firm $150,000, he wouldn’t have gotten nearly this much attention.

“It’s dumbfounding,” one caller said about the idea that the NPC would allow someone “to make an outlandish statement.”

I don’t for a minute think the people who called shouldn’t have. But I was astounded at the conviction the callers expressed that someone who has something nasty to say should be silenced.

The First Amendment was created to prevent the government from butting into Americans’ ability to have an uninhibited, robust and wide-open debate about the nooks and crannies of society. It doesn’t give individual people the right to say anything about anybody. There are laws against slander, after all. But the underlying notion is that people can speak their minds and that sunshine is the best disinfectant.

When the press conference rolled around, legitimate news outlets – the mainstream media – were extremely circumspect in their coverage of Sinclair and his allegations. Articles in the Washington Post? New York Times? Associated Press? L.A. Times? Not a word the day of or after the event.

Not so the advocacy blogs. Sinclair’s accusations were listed by blogger after blogger, who went on to decry that those accusations were “allowed” to be voiced.

The day after the press conference, I got a call from a woman who scolded the National Press Club for permitting an “obviously mentally ill person” to speak. “For you folks to support this and have the videotape shown everywhere – I’m incredulous.”

The videotape was posted on blogsnot associated with media outlets.

And therein lies the difference between most journalists and some bloggers: Professional journalists don’t print or air startling allegations without first investigating their credibility.

This is not meant to be a slap-down of blogs. There are plenty of bloggers who research and think before they post. And bloggers who just want to opine have a role in our national conversation.

My point is that the very thing the people who advocated blocking Sinclair’s press conference said they feared – widespread media coverage – simply didn’t happen because no credible news outlet would publish those kinds of allegations without first verifying them.

The underlying message I got from the callers and e-mailers was that the First Amendment and free speech are an impediment to the way they think things ought to be. Or that while some people are free to speak, others should not be.

That way of thinking is a lot scarier than allegations from Larry Sinclair.

Sylvia A. Smith has worked at The Journal Gazette since 1973 and has covered Washington since 1989. She is the only Washington-based reporter who exclusively covers northeast Indiana. Her e-mail address is sylviasmith@jg.net. Her phone number is 202-879-6710.

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