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If you're seeking on the last weekend to influence a Republican primary runoff for the U.S. Senate in Alabama, then you'll need to find fresh liberals to berate.

That's because the essence of modern American extreme conservatism is intolerance of supposedly satanic liberals.

But non-berated liberals are hard to find in Alabama. The Republican tent in that state is expansive, but only in that it spans the extremely intolerant right wing and the somehow even more extremely intolerant right wing.

Enter Donald Trump, the man for this job, as he well-demonstrated Friday night in a trip to a rally in Huntsville.

Here's what he came up with: Owners of NFL teams ought to fire these SOBs, as the president of the United States called them, who take knees of protest during the pre-game playing of the national anthem.

The president thought there were good people among white-supremacist marchers in Charlottesville. But he finds none among those on their knees on football sidelines during the Star-Spangled Banner.

You can be a neo-Nazi and be all right. But you'd better not be a pro football quarterback who thinks America is racist.

Cheers rang out from ambidextrous Alabama Republicans in response to the president's tactical bluster.

By ambidextrous, I mean that these Alabama Republicans are able at once to romanticize their heritage's warring secession from the United States and take intolerant offense at modern peaceful demonstrations against that same United States.

Trump is strung out endorsing in today's Alabama contest the appointed replacement to Jeff Sessions--a thoroughly right-wing fellow named Luther Strange--against Judge Roy Moore.

Moore is so right-wing that he has made a public life of saying that his own view of God--because it's the right one, and yours is not--must pre-empt even the U.S. Constitution as our nation's supreme law.

That's such a popular notion among Alabama Republicans that Moore has pulled ahead in polls.

But Trump, tethered to Strange, wants as always to win for the sake of winning and ego. So, he tried to out-Moore Moore. He declared in Huntsville on Friday night that professional football players ought to be fired for expressing themselves in ways different from the popular will.

It is, of course, decidedly un-American--non-free, indeed fascist--for the nation's leading government official to demand acquiescence to demonstrations of fealty to national symbols.

But Trump's investment-banking treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, was within his own rights when he said on a news show Sunday that these NFL players could exercise their First Amendment right of free expression on their own time.

Constitutional free expression means the government can't stop you from saying what you wish. But it doesn't mean your boss can't fire you. It's his company and his money. There is no such thing in America as an economic right to express yourself. There's only a personal right.

So, yes, NFL owners could legally tell these men whom the president calls SOBs to do what the president says, which is to "get the hell off the field."

Light touches of profanity seem to be acceptable among true-Christian Republicans.

Alas, this anti-American mad defiance of free expression is no longer--if it ever was--exclusively an affront committed by the American extreme right.

Polling released last week showed a generational rising of leftist intolerance among American four-year college students.

A majority told pollsters that American free speech meant they didn't have to be subjected to speech they disagreed with. A majority said their universities were obligated to counter speakers they didn't like with speakers they liked. A fifth of them believed they held the right to physically restrain speakers they didn't like.

That's illiberal and un-free. Our great national experiment in liberty is seriously imperiled by a president demagoguing in Alabama and college students wanting safe space from disagreeable opinion.

Free speech is not merely about what you say, but what you allow others to say.

There is dignity and real power in another great if unstated American right, which is to ignore those who offend us. It is to answer their offensiveness with the splendid serenity of our superior indifference.

That goes for the president. It goes for Judge Moore. It goes for these misguided children on college campuses.

Yes, it goes for me in considering the president's tweets, which might be different because he is the president, after all. But his tweets and most of what he says have been shown by the passage of time to be worthy only of ignoring.

It goes for anyone walking past a flag-burner. It goes for letting neo-Nazis march and chant their nonsense in Charlottesville so long as all they do is march and chant.

It goes for football fans who ought to be entirely too occupied saluting their country and getting fired up for the game to worry about players on their knees on the sideline.

Only by ignoring can we all be truly free.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 09/26/2017

Print Headline: What free speech is

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