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Editorial: Ousted GOP leader’s ‘disgusting’ tweets reflect a failure to understand that with rights come responsibilities

Published: 11/6/2019 10:10:23 PM
Modified: 11/6/2019 10:10:14 PM

Congratulations to new Sullivan County Republican Chairman Steven Smith for repudiating the vile and sometimes obscene vitriol his predecessor, Keith Hanson, heaped on several critics. The only way civility can be returned to public discourse — and it is by no means certain that it can — is if responsible leaders insist on it and people of good will on both sides of the partisan divide demand it.

As news editor John Gregg reported last week, Hanson, who formerly hosted a popular radio talk show, resigned his chairmanship as members of the Sullivan County Republican Committee were preparing to oust him. They were acting in the wake of disparaging comments Hanson made about people who criticized his invitation to a notoriously Islamophobic author and blogger to speak at a party fundraiser.

Hanson’s rhetorical barrage branded Randy Britton, a retired Navy captain with 25 years of active and reserve service, a “traitor” for expressing concern about the impact of Robert Spencer’s planned appearance on a Muslim family living in Grantham, the original venue for the fundraiser, which was eventually moved because of public safety concerns. Hanson also employed disgusting epithets, which we have no desire to reproduce here, to mock others who objected to the fundraiser.

Smith, who is also a state representative from Charlestown, was refreshingly candid in condemning this behavior. He apologized to Britton, saying his integrity is above reproach. Moreover, he struck exactly the right note in referring to the Muslim family that lives in the Eastman community in Grantham. They “should not have to have gone through this,” the new chairman said. “They came to this country to be Americans. And that is one of the values that we want to support. We don’t want to make these people feel not welcome.” And to give credit where credit is due, Gov. Chris Sununu also decried Hanson’s tweets as “disgusting and inappropriate.”

Although Hanson did not respond to Gregg’s request for comment, he had previously asserted that his critics were out to silence him and views with which they disagreed. This would be a more compelling argument if he had refrained from using a flame-thrower to spew incendiary language while making it. And, perhaps more to the point, it is language such as Hanson employed that has the effect of silencing those who can’t, or won’t, tolerate verbal abuse.

It also must be remembered that the First Amendment guarantees only that government may not abridge freedom of speech, not that it is an absolute and unlimited right in all spheres. Historically, the practical limit on free expression in America was social disapprobation of personal and political speech that went beyond what was generally deemed to be acceptable. The rise of social media has buried that inhibition under a mudslide of digital messaging, to the great detriment of both democracy and individual relations. What was once said only in private, if there, has become the currency of a demeaning national public discourse.

Those who delight in flaming people with whom they disagree in the most vulgar of terms need to reflect on the fact that rights come with responsibilities, and those rights are most at risk when responsibilities are ignored. That is, nothing is more likely to result in a right being circumscribed than the regular abuse of it. Freedom of expression is too important a value to be jeopardized by exercising it without conscience or restraint.

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