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Is Howard Dean grossly ill-informed about our nation’s bedrock freedoms, or was he merely pandering to the Democratic Party’s base when he tweeted out an ignorant statement?

Dean, a former governor of Vermont, rocketed from obscurity in 2004, when he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. He harnessed a populist energy, much like Bernie Sanders did last year, and briefly emerged as the apparent front-runner. Then at a campaign rally he screamed like a Muppet (the infamous “Dean Scream”) and everything kind of fell apart.

He recovered to become head of the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2009, and since then has been a favored liberal commentator on television. As such, his comments – both on-camera and off, spoken or written or tweeted – are scrutinized, and he surely realizes this.

On April 20, he chose to comment on Twitter about conservative Ann Coulter, amid controversy generated by the University of California at Berkeley’s decision to postpone a speech by Coulter, who uses intentionally provocative terms to belittle and mock her opponents. Administrators said they needed more time for security preparations because of expected violent protests by liberal activists. Conservatives said the university was buckling to those who think the First Amendment shouldn’t apply to political views they oppose.

Dean seemed to side with not allowing Coulter to speak, tweeting, “Hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment.”

Dean, 68, is beyond old enough to know better.

The Supreme Court has made clear repeatedly, in cases involving both the political far left and the far right, that hateful speech is protected.

That is why Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan can’t be stopped from holding rallies on public streets.

That is why Westboro Baptist Church can’t be prevented from going to the funerals of soldiers and holding up signs saying the soldiers died because of God’s hate.

As Lauren Carroll of PolitiFact wrote, there’s no universal definition of “hate speech,” so you might debate whether Coulter’s history of explosive rhetoric qualifies, but it really doesn’t matter. The courts’ track record on the First Amendment is clear: You can be as hateful as you want, as long as you don’t make a threat of violence. Threats and violence are not protected.

But when talking about the First Amendment, you also have to be clear about what exactly it protects. The First Amendment specifically says, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Courts have ruled repeatedly that the wording means that the government can’t tell Ann Coulter what she can or can’t say.

It does not mean that Coulter has the right to stand on your front porch and say whatever she wants. It’s your house. You can kick her off the property. But then she can stand on the public right of way and yell at you – unless she’s so loud she violates a noise ordinance. Then she has to lower her voice.

It does not mean that Coulter can invite herself without warning to speak in any government-run auditorium. But she can walk onto a public university campus uninvited, stand on the student commons and talk. Even yell. In fact this is what street preachers, among others, do at colleges all over the country.

In Berkeley’s case, she was invited by the school’s College Republicans, who are able to reserve speaking space. The university runs afoul of the law, then, only if it treats Coulter differently than anyone else invited by a college-affiliated group – which it does not appear to be doing because it provided an alternate speaking date.

But here’s something the First Amendment does NOT do: If Ann Coulter walks onto a college campus, stands in the commons and starts her usual spiel denigrating minorities and immigrants in the most inflammatory, provocative way and generally making people mad, the First Amendment says only that the government can’t stop her. It does not say that some person not employed by the government who is standing nearby and getting angry can’t pelt her with eggs and rotten tomatoes — or punch her.

That would be assault. It’s wrong, and it should result in a criminal penalty, but it’s not a First Amendment violation.

Some Republicans in North Carolina’s General Assembly are so exercised about the First Amendment lately that they want to pass a law requiring the University of North Carolina system to formally institute punishments for students whose protests interfere with others’ free speech rights. Let that sink in. As in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” apparently some people’s First Amendment rights are more equal than others’.

The legislators’ proposal is government overreach, but I agree with their underlying point: The correct response to speech you oppose, even that you consider hateful, is not silencing the speech or reacting violently to it.

Regarding Coulter – and similar rhetorical bomb-throwers who seem to revel in the anger they generate – I agree with the response suggested in the Washington Post by Alyssa Rosenberg, who described Coulter as a “boring performance artist” rather than someone with ideas that should be taken seriously:

“Coulter is like a distorted Tinker Bell: It’s not applause that saves her from fading out of existence, it’s shock and jeers. These days, her ability to elicit that reaction seems to be the main reason Coulter gets campus bookings in the first place. If it’s not, and if campus conservative groups have mistaken Coulter for any sort of serious or interesting thinker, then the campus right may be in even graver trouble than the campus left. Being willing to say anything deemed outrageous is not the same thing as having significant ideas.”

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Elon University
A new survey by Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center and the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project paints a picture of a future population that largely won’t be geared to consume news as it currently is produced. That’s not exactly the way it’s put, but draw your own conclusion:

“Young people accustomed to a diet of quick-fix information nuggets will be less likely to undertake deep, critical analysis of issues and challenging information. Shallow choices, an expectation of instant gratification, a lack of patience, are likely to be common results. One possible outcome is stagnation in innovation.”

On the bright side, it proposes the possibility of “evolving social structures (that) will create a new ‘division of labor’ that rewards those who make swift, correct decisions as they exploit new information streams and rewards the specialists who retain the skills of focused, deep thinking.” That sounds like what good journalists are geared to do, potentially putting them in the category of “new winners … in this reconfigured environment.” Let us hope.

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The Elements of Style from Jake Heller on Vimeo.

You won’t actually learn anything from this.

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Maybe it’s a good thing that a newspaper reported incorrectly that a Seattle-area woman had been murdered in 1996. Maybe her kids will appreciate her more now. On the other hand, maybe it was wishful thinking on someone’s part.

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pelican
Sorry for the long lag without a post. I spent several days getting sunburned and repairing a pelican’s broken neck (above, with a rubber band providing tension to keep the head from tilting back until the cement in the neck set). After several days of sanity (and admiring how the Star-News in Wilmington, N.C., seems to have managed to hold on to a larger news hole than many papers its size in this economy), I am back to work. … Not that I have anything to say today.

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Twitter post
Mallary Jean Tenore of poynter.org collected tips for how journalists can build a bigger, more engaged audience. They are good for reminding journalists how the online world differs from the traditional worlds of print and broadcast news. For instance, you include the names of sources in tweets and Facebook updates about your story; if that seems to grate on your traditionalist nerves, think of the traditionalist parallel: names and places, as in getting local names and local places in the paper makes the paper inherently more interesting to local readers. And the tip to tweet follow-ups, even (or especially) if your follow-up is online later in the day that you first tweeted about the story, is a reminder that the online news world is always in motion, and your potential audience is moving in and out of the social network through the day.

However, some of the tips make me cringe at the potential of some journalist somewhere thinking all the tips apply equally to all stories. For instance: “Let sources know about your story, ask them to share it.” It probably would not be a good idea to e-mail Councilman Smith and ask him to tweet about your story quoting Councilwoman Jones calling him a pig and including his paraphrase of Dan Aykroyd’s line to Jane Curtin from the old Point-Counterpoint skits on “Saturday Night Live.” Similarly: “Comment on stories that have been written about the topic, and include a link to your story” does not mean you are encouraged to spout your opinion on whatever ongoing story you are covering; any comments you make should adhere to common sense and news guidelines on social media (or, as John Robinson of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., put it, “Don’t be stupid.”)

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