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COLUMN: Freedom of speech does not require absolute agreement

By Paul Christiansen
On March 5, 2014

In 2003, bluegrass band Dixie Chicks was coming off one of its most successful years in the music industry. The Chicks' critically-acclaimed album "Home" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Album charts — staying there for 12 consecutive weeks — and secured the top position on the Billboard Top 200 Albums charts during its release on Aug. 27, 2002.

That album — filled with hits like "Longtime Gone," protest song "Travelin' Soldier" and a beautiful cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" — went on to win four Grammy Awards on Feb. 23, 2003, including the award for Best Country Album. The band was on top of the world, and their success showed no sign of stopping.

But all that changed later that year at the Shepherd's Bush Empire theater in London, England, on March 10. Singer Natalie Maines expressed her thoughts on the Iraq War and President George W. Bush's hunt for alleged weapons of mass destruction.

"Just so you know, we're on the good side with y'all," Maines said. "We do not want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas."

This would effectively turn into career suicide for the Dixie Chicks. Within the following days, the band's albums would be removed from radio play across the country. Their single "Landslide" fell from No. 10 to No. 43 within a week's time on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and disappeared from the chart completely within two weeks.

I was working at my hometown AM radio station at the time. My boss ordered me to throw away any Dixie Chicks albums we had. While all of this seemed insane to my 16-year-old mind, I accepted these consequences must be a part of the freedom of speech provided in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. You can say whatever you want as long as you can accept whatever the cost might be.

It's been 11 years since Maines and the Chicks fell off the charts overnight. To me, these women stood firm and kept to their beliefs and showed the country and the world that Americans shouldn't be afraid to speak their mind, no matter the result. But was it all in vain?

This year I've seen conservative America — the same demographic of people who ostracized the Dixie Chicks — come to the defense of celebrities engaging in their right to free speech. In December, “Duck Dynasty” mogul Phil Robertson found himself suspended from the A&E Network airwaves after a slurry of anti-homosexual and bigoted racial comments came out in an interview with GQ magazine. Political pundits and notorious Tina Fey impersonator Sarah Palin took to her Facebook and Twitter accounts to defend Robertson.

"Free speech is an endangered species," Palin wrote alongside a photo of herself posing with the show's cast. "Those 'intolerants' hatin' and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us."

OK, maybe free speech in opposition to homosexuality is somehow less controversial than free speech against foreign war and the leader of the U.S. Or maybe the public has shifted so extremely in the past decade. Let's look at another example.

Recently the "Motor City Madman" Ted Nugent, constant gun-nut and sometimes musician, has been making the political rounds in support of Greg Abbott, winner of the Texas gubernatorial primary elections. This is fresh off derogatory comments Nugent made concerning President Barack Obama.

"I have obviously failed to galvanize and prod, if not shame enough Americans to be ever-vigilant not to let a Chicago communist-raised, communist-educated, communist-nurtured subhuman mongrel like the ACORN community organizer gangster Barack Hussein Obama to weasel his way into the top office of authority in the United States of America," he said.

But rather than condemn these historically-tasteless remarks — "subhuman mongrel" was a term used by the Nazis to describe the Jews, a group they sought to wipe out because they were deemed inferior — Palin has chosen to celebrate Nugent's madness, throwing her support behind Abbot and saying, "If he is good enough for Ted Nugent, he is good enough for me."

The public ignores — and has for several years — the fact that Nugent has made comments that could be thought as threatening to Democrat Party leaders, including public statements where he tells Obama and Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state, to "suck on my machine gun."

I urge you, my fellow Aggies, to be savvy in your media consumption. Try to remember this country's recent history when it comes to freedom of speech. If you're like me, you're asking yourselves why the playing field isn't more level. But more importantly, you should be asking yourselves why we allow Ted Nugent to still be relevant.

Paul is the former features editor of The Utah Statesman and is a senior majoring in print journalism. Send any comments to

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