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Speak Freely, Tracy Morgan

Because I'm known as a First Amendment purist and activist, I've received a number of messages and questions regarding Tracy Morgan and the First Amendment. I think it's worth expressing the following.

First and foremost, only a government can censor speech. Organizations such as NBC also enjoy a First Amendment right to express themselves, and as a private corporation can legally choose to deny someone a voice on their media properties if they so choose. And while we refer to it as corporate censorship, it is not really censorship at all in the context of the First Amendment.

Tracy Morgan is protected by the First Amendment. And while some may argue that his diatribe crossed the line into inciting violence, such a shouting fire in a crowded theater, it would not meet the strict standards that are applied that guarantee us our First Amendment protections.

That said, the First Amendment right to freely express oneself does not mean that speech is without consequence. Eminem can sing homophobic and misogynist lyrics, and the targets of his expression can just as loudly and freely berate him, mock him, pity him and boycott him.

Anti-gay organizations can spew their vile hatred under the guise of morality or religion, but it doesn't mean they won't be ripped a new one for it.

Tracy Morgan has the right to say whatever he wants about how he feels about gay people. That does not mean he has the right to be employed by NBC or Tina Fey if he crosses a line that either displeases them or reflects badly on them.

Rush Limbaugh can make as many racist, vile and ugly statements as he likes. It doesn't mean he is protected from it being attributed to a pathalogical, racist, vile, bloated Oycontin addict.

Ann Coulter can say that if she had a gay child she would tell the child he or she was adopted. And we can say that if Ann Coulter told a child she was a mother, the child could, and most likely would, say he or she was adopted.

As public figures shoot their mouths (and themselves in the foot), and laws that tackle hate speech are being crafted in congress, we need to be careful to make sure that context, mood and occasion are incorporated into how expression is assessed and managed as opposed to blanket condemnations of words.

Nigger, faggot and other epithets have an important historical relevance, and the outright ban of those words would be chilling and dangerous. We can't teach why these words hurt and sting without being able to use and reference them.

While it may be really tempting to silence people like Tracy Morgan, Mel Gibson, or Michael Richards, the best way to counter the lies and the hatred they spread is through countering misinformation. That means more, intelligent, constructive expression that neutralizes -- or better nullifies -- the original speech , not less expression.

Tracy Morgan may yet learn the hard way just why the kind of garbage he spews is unacceptable (not to mention unamusing and ignorant). In terms of fans, job opportunities, and goodwill, to name a few. But he still has a First Amendment right to express himself, as do all Americans.

Just because we have free speech does not mean it is without cost.