The surge of national pride that has swept the country after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 has sparked the beginnings of a new, more difficult debate over the balance among national security, free speech and patriotism.
In the most highly publicized case, a nationally televised talk show host was shunned by many of his advertisers and criticized by the White House spokesman for making what some considered an unpatriotic remark about American soldiers.
People have to watch what they say and watch what they do.
White House spokesman 9/26/01
But the debate over whether it is proper to speak in ways that seem to contradict the popular theme of national unity has been played out on smaller stages as well.
A college professor in the Southwest has been threatened with disciplinary action for comments he made about the World Trade Center disaster, and at least two small-town journalists have lost their jobs after criticizing the president.
A program of the works of a German composer was canceled by a New York music program after he made comments that suggested the destruction of the World Trade Center might be considered "the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos."
Floyd Abrams, a first amendment specialist with the Manhattan law firm of Cahill Gordon & Reindel, said the United States often debates issues like patriotism and free speech in times of crisis.
"Hard times for the first amendment tend to come at very hard times for the country," Mr. Abrams said. "When we feel threatened, when we feel at peril, the First Amendment or First Amendment values are sometimes subordinated to other interests."
One of the most visible examples of this burgeoning debate involved a scuffle between the White House and Bill Maher, host of the late-night talk show "Politically Incorrect." Last week, Mr. Maher said that the hijackers were not cowards but that it was cowardly for the United States to launch cruise missiles on targets thousands of miles away.
Some of his main advertisers abruptly ended their sponsorship of the program, which is designed to be controversial. He later apologized for the remarks.
On Wednesday, Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, denounced Mr. Maher, saying of news organizations, and all Americans, that in times like these "people have to watch what they say and watch what they do."
When the White House later released the official transcript of Mr. Fleischer's briefing, the portion of his comments urging people to "watch what they say" was not included. When that sparked yet another round of discussion over Mr. Fleischer's comments, Anne Womack, an assistant to Mr. Fleischer, said yesterday that the transcript did vary from the remarks Mr. Fleischer made. She called it "a transcription error."
Mr. Fleischer had earlier noted the President's criticism of Representative John Cooksey, Republican of Louisiana, for remarks that were considered disparaging to Arabs. Mr. Fleischer said last night that his suggestion that people "watch what they say" referred to both Mr. Maher and Mr. Cooksey.
Karlheinz Stockhausen, the German composer, apologized for the remarks he made in Hamburg following the attacks, saying, "Not for one moment have I thought or felt the way my words are now being interpreted in the press."
The Eastman School of Music's Ossia Ensemble canceled a planned performance of Mr. Stockhausen's work "Stimmung," scheduled for Nov. 7 at the Cooper Union.
Community reaction was swift and furious when the newspaper columnists in Texas City, Tex., and Grants Pass, Ore., criticized the president's actions the day of the attacks.
Tom Gutting, the columnist for The Texas City Sun, wrote that the president was "flying around the country like a scared child, seeking refuge in his mother's bed after having a nightmare."
The paper received scores of letters and phone calls. Les Daughtry Jr., the publisher of The Sun, later apologized on the front page saying, the column had made him sick. "The opinion piece which I refer to was not appropriate to publish during this time our country and our leaders find themselves in." Mr. Gutting lost his job.
The news director of KOMU, a commercial station run by faculty and students at the University of Missouri, ordered that no flags be worn on camera, leading a member of the state legislature to suggest that body look into the school's financing.
In Oregon, Dan Guthrie, 61, said that on Monday he was called into the office of Dennis Mack, publisher of The Daily Courier in Grants Pass, and fired for a column criticizing the president, saying he "skedaddled" after the attacks.
Mr. Mack said in a telephone interview of the offending column, "we felt it turned into a personal attack as opposed to expanding the concept of the president being on the front line."
In a more subtle reaction to a break with the unified front, correspondents for newspapers and television networks said administration officials stopped returning their phone calls for a time after they expressed skepticism about the White House assertion that Air Force One had been threatened by terrorists. That story was challenged in several news accounts this week and the White House abruptly stopped talking about it.
The Bush administration's sensitivity about coverage of the crisis was also on view this week when the State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, criticized the Voice of America for defying State's wishes and broadcasting a report based on its interview with Mullah Mohammad Omar, the reclusive leader of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia.
In a press conference Wednesday, Mr. Boucher said, "I'm not writing their news stories for them. I'm just I think, considering the fact that U.S. taxpayers pay for this, considering the fact that this is the Voice of America, we don't think that the head of the Taliban belongs on this radio station."
Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said: "The fact that the rest of society and the media are being supersensitive right now doesn't bother me too much. I think that's just a human reaction. I've been a lot less sarcastic and flippant in the last two weeks when I talk to anyone. That's probably a unifying thing." Across the country, Americans were torn in their feeling of whether traditional support for freedom of speech should be undercut by the need to support the government in times of national crisis.
"I don't think it's a time for criticism in the way we've criticized Bush or presidents before him," said Jennifer Ricciardi, 28, a worker for a garden service company in Chicago. "If it's constructive criticism, that is what we need. We do need people asking are these the right decisions to make and what are the consequences."
Darin Peters, a 33-year old business analyst for Qwest Communications in Denver said: `If I saw something was messed up, I'd still say something. I fully support the President though."
Mr. Peters, who was wearing a small American flag pin on his lapel while he was waiting for his bus, said he believed people should speak freely. `It's difficult for anyone to have freedom and liberty and be secure at the same time," he said.
Margaret Whiteside, a volunteer for a project called Literary Chicago said: "We've taken the road of over political correctness, and it's because we are a sensitive nation right now. But we've taken it to an extreme. We've ripped on every president before him, and that's changed because of a real sensitivity to what has happened. But I don't think it'll last."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company