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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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A column earlier this week by Eric Frazier of the Charlotte Observer raised the idea of moderates banding together to form a third major political party based on their shared interests “in safe, incremental social change, protecting business and the economy, a strong defense and pragmatism in foreign affairs. They want the trains to run on time and the stock market to rise while everybody more or less gets along.”

I can see them now, gathering for their first national convention in Peoria, or perhaps Omaha, a place the party leadership feels is representative of middle America. Some perhaps suggested St. Louis, but that has been too much in the news for all the wrong reasons. Why remind people of all that? Phoenix would have been out because others feel that its vast sprawl and congested freeways seem a bit too much California Lite. Indianapolis would be too urban and gritty.

The party chooses a medium-sized convention hall, nothing grandiose, and fills it with beige banners emblazoned with the party’s interim motto — a temporary selection made as a compromise — printed in a plain, unadorned font, “Can’t we all just get along?”

The first day’s convention action item: Choose a party symbol.

Suggestions for the party symbol, the iconic image that would be the party’s visual counter to the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey, range from the mythic phoenix and griffin to the more prosaic bald eagle.

As sensible moderates, party delegates agree to hold a series of votes to winnow the selection. Eliminated in the first round are all mythical animals, which are deemed to carry an implication that the party is not realistic, which is, if nothing else, the main thing moderates are all about.

Eliminated in the second are such African animals as the hippo, which many feel would appear to be just a blob when reduced to red-and-blue iconography at the presidential debates, and the rhino, which the moderate former Democrats object is too reminiscent of a Republican elephant. The moderate former Republicans don’t quite agree but want to be reasonable.

Everyone kind of likes the eagle, but the eagle is everywhere already. It adorns sales flyers as much as political pamphlets. Stephen Colbert has helped cement it as the symbol of pistachio nuts, and the moderates agree they should avoid that association.

A large plurality then backs choosing an American wild stallion reared up on its hind legs.

But the moderate former Republicans object that a horse is awfully close to the Democratic donkey. If you reject the rhino, it’s only fair to sideline the stallion. The stallion-backers mildly try to make the case to keep it, but then others also object about the stallion being wild. The party is supposed to be for moderates who favor reason and practicality. “Wild” is another thing. Let the Republicans and Democrats be wild.

Finally the voting narrows to the only proposal not eliminated: a black lab. No one’s particularly enthused about it, but no one hates it either, and isn’t that the essence of compromise? Plus, black labs are tremendously loyal and reliable dogs, and unfailingly friendly to everyone – no decent person would hate a black lab.

That settled, the delegates break for the day and head for an evening at Applebee’s to toss back a few light beers and prepare for the second day’s action item: considering an alternative to the temporary motto. Among the options: “Half a loaf is better than none,” and “If no one ever settled, your mother would still be single.”

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