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Joan Vennochi

Freedom of speech, and the right to offend

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / March 13, 2011

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PROTESTERS CAN hold signs that read “God Hates Fags’’ at military funerals. But a college newspaper columnist is fired for writing an opinion piece that links Planned Parenthood to promiscuous behavior and suggests that some rape victims are responsible for being assaulted.

The Supreme Court just ruled that hateful protests at military funerals are protected speech under the First Amendment. But, in the media world, of all places, certain ideas are deemed so offensive that the person who expresses them is quickly out of a job.

Yevgeniya Lomakina wrote a column that was published in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian at the University of Massachusetts Amherst under this headline: “Planned Parenthood can’t treat a sick society.’’ It begins with a common conservative allegation against Planned Parenthood as it fights for federal funding: its main business is abortion. Planned Parenthood, she goes on to write, is “engaged in a number of morally questionable practices, such as opposing parental consent laws’’ and prescribes “abortion pills without a doctor’s visit.’’

Lomakina also veers off into a scathing Phyllis Schlafly-like diatribe against “female liberation’’ and what the author sees as its failed outcome — sexual freedom and lax morals. From there, Lomakina leaps to her most controversial assertion:

“If a young woman wears a promiscuous outfit to a party, then proceeds to drink and flirt excessively, she should not blame men for her downfall. . . . Far from being a victim of rape, she is a victim of her own choices.’’

Lomakina’s concession that rape “should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law’’ did not soothe readers who sounded off in an angry wave of online comments, describing her commentary as sexist and reprehensible.

The paper ultimately apologized for what editors called poor judgment in running the column. The column was restored to the website, after it was initially taken down. But Lomakina lost her columnist spot, and the editor who signed off on it was let go.

On one hand, young editors should not be blasted for following a trend set by major media outlets, in response to politically incorrect remarks.

Veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas was forced to resign from Hearst News Service after a rabbi with a video camera asked her to comment on Israel and she said, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.’’ NPR fired analyst Juan Williams for saying he gets nervous at airports when he sees people “in Muslim garb.’’ CNN fired Rich Sanchez after he called Jon Stewart “a bigot’’ and implied that networks are run by Jews. And, journalist Nir Rosen lost a fellowship at New York University after a tweet of bad taste following news of the sexual assault of CBS correspondent Lara Logan. Finally, Vivian Schiller resigned as head of NPR after politically incorrect remarks made by a departing fund-raiser who was recorded on a sting video.

In Lomakina’s case, she wasn’t blurting or tweeting without thinking. She was doing her job — expressing a provocative opinion. Better editing and research would have helped, but that’s beside the point.

A private media outlet can be as politically correct as it wants, even if it’s betraying its basic journalistic mission. The First Amendment applies to government entities, which includes public universities. The Massachusetts Daily Collegian is described as an independent student newspaper that receives no editorial guidance or funding from the university. But, said lawyer Harvey Silverglate, who specializes in First Amendment cases, it’s possible “If this edict came down from the university — that the writer had to be fired — it could be contested legally.’’

Since the controversy, Lomakina said via e-mail, “I have been getting an incredible amount of hate mail.’’

Instead of raining hate mail on the writer, her opinion should be rebutted in the free and open marketplace of ideas that a university is supposed to represent.

“Speech is powerful,’’ wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., in the 8-1 ruling that protects those ugly signs at military funerals. “It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain.’’ But under the First Amendment, Roberts continued, “We cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.’’

Punishing the politically incorrect chips away at a right so precious that people around the world are dying to attain it.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.