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Whistling Dixie (Chicks)

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Advertisers can't have it both ways on free speech

Comedians were noticeably absent from this year's White House Correspondents' Association dinner, the annual gathering of journalists known around Washington as "Oscars East." Perhaps it was the fear of some offensive war-related remark from the mouth of a Jay Leno or a Drew Carey that persuaded the event's organizers to opt for the soothing lyrics of Ray Charles.

After all, politicians tend to think that celebrities, like children, should be seen and not heard, especially if their views are considered "unpatriotic." The First Amendment right to freedom of speech is hardly alive and well in this country. It's on life support.

Consider the ugly examples. On March 10 in London, Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines told the audience, "Just so you know, we're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas." The furor still hasn't died down. Many country music fans—egged on by conservative DJs and talk-show hosts exercising their First Amendment right to protest Maines' choice of words—immediately boycotted the group.

But protesting someone's words is a far cry from threatening physical harm. Remember the part about how it's not OK to yell fire in a crowded theater if there is no fire? Not only did the Chicks find their CD sales plummeting and their songs pulled off the radio after their comments, they started receiving death threats. After claiming to know where Maines lived, one San Antonio DJ even suggested a posse be sent over to straighten her out. No wonder Madonna, the ultimate rebellious entertainer, toned down the anti-war sentiments in her "American Life" video. She has to worry about the safety of her kids.

Advertisers are practically as guilty of trampling on this country's democratic principles as the yahoos menacing the Dixie Chicks. Lipton put its iced-tea ad campaign featuring the Chicks on ice. Visa yanked a spot with Martin Sheen after he spoke out against the war. In both cases, the message was clear: Speak your mind, publicly defend your principles, and pretty soon you won't be getting work.

Advertisers can't have it both ways. It's the height of hypocrisy for companies to fire spokespeople for comments they consider harmful to their brands and then turn around and scream that Nike deserves First Amendment protection for statements made about its overseas labor practices. One of the allegations against Nike, the defendant in a case now before the Supreme Court, is that it either lied or misled consumers in editorials, press releases and a print ad when it defended itself against criticism. So this kind of speech is acceptable, but the words of Sheen and the Dixie Chicks are not?

I'm not sure when America became a place where it isn't safe to speak one's mind, but it frightens me. I'd like to think it was when Ari Fleischer warned us that we'd better watch what we say following Bill Maher's "unpatriotic" statements after 9/11. Or when Dick Cheney said, "You're either with us or against us." But I know better.

The sad fact is, America has seen this before. Richard Nixon kept an "enemies list" of labor leaders, journalists, business leaders and entertainers. Entertainers were blacklisted as suspected communists in the 1950s. Americans can be a pretty intolerant lot. Fringe elements of special-interest groups like the militia and anti-abortion movements have committed acts of violence in the name of their cause.

Natalie Maines' claim that she is ashamed that her president is using violence to solve his country's problems is not such an unpatriotic notion. We teach our children not to fight on the playground. But more important, whether we agree with her beliefs or not, she has a right to speak out. The words "free speech" emblazoned across Maines' nude body on the cover of Entertainment Weekly are a welcome sight.