A Civil Tongue

It's old news by now that Robert Smith was fired last week from his post on the board of Washington's Metro transit agency for referring ...
by | June 22, 2006

It's old news by now that Robert Smith was fired last week from his post on the board of Washington's Metro transit agency for referring to homosexuality as "sexual deviancy" during an appearance on a cable talk show. I was chagrined just yesterday, however, when my community paper arrived on the lawn, carrying an editorial that bemoaned his firing.

The Gazette, in an editorial entitled "Mr. Smith is railroaded out of Washington," argued that the remark had nothing to do with his performance as a transit adviser. "Smith has every right to voice his personal views on a public affairs program, even if they aren't in the mainstream or politically correct."

Let's skip the usual argument by analogy -- that no one would defend Smith if he called black people lazy or referred to Jews as dirty moneylenders. And I'm certainly sad that my profession has helped to sanitize the speech of public officials for pouncing on them with great force whenever they say anything that can be construed as insulting.

We had a ridiculous tempest here in Washington a few years back when a mayoral aide was fired (then rehired) for using the word "niggardly" because it sounds like, you know.

But these are the rules of the game, folks.

Even a noted blowhard like Iowa Congressman Steve King has apologized for his latest incendiary remark this past weekend. (He insulted veteran UPI columnist Helen Thomas, saying after the death of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, "'There probably are not 72 virgins in the hell he's at. And if there are, they probably all look like Helen Thomas.'')

Smith himself -- while holding fast to his views -- understands that people in a public position don't have the same freedom to sound off as your average Joe. After all, he was serving as Maryland Governor Bob Ehrlich's representative on the board. Since Ehrlich has to answer for his appointees, he quickly gave Smith the axe.

"[Ehrlich] almost had no choice but to respond the way he did," said Smith -- as quoted by the Gazette itself!

I've argued in this space in favor of the right of people to express even the most outrageously homophobic views, under the right circumstances. A professional gay-hater such as Fred Phelps, whom I was writing about, is certainly entitled to engage in that kind of speech all he wants.

But public officials -- whether elected or appointed -- don't have the right to gratuitously insult groups of people who are their constituents or, in this case, their customers. That's just dumb.

It would have been one thing for the paper to defend Smith if he had apologized or been quoted out of context. But he's standing by his statement, so he should certainly be willing to accept the consequences of them -- and so should the Gazette.