More Messages: If You Love Your Speech, Set it Free

Among the elements added to the CBS Evening News when anchor Katie Couric took over the broadcast is freeSpeech. Each night in this segment, an individual is given a minute or so to share his or her views about a topic of interest, and CBS, which has long been attacked by conservatives as a bastion of liberalism, has attempted to demonstrate its objectivity by inviting yakkers from across the ideological spectrum to spout off. Left-leaning Morgan Spurlock, of Super Size Me fame, got the first chance, but he was closely followed by righter-than-right talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. However, neither of these opinion-spouters caused as much of a stir as a commentator from this neck of the woods: Brian Rohrbough.

In the remarks he delivered during the program's October 2 episode, Rohrbough, whose son Daniel was killed during the 1999 Columbine High School assault, weighed in about the murders that day at a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. After posing the question "Why did this happen?," he offered the following theories:

This country is in a moral free-fall. For over two generations, the public school system has taught in a moral vacuum, expelling God from the school and from the government, replacing him with evolution, where the strong kill the weak, without moral consequences and life has no inherent value.

We teach there are no absolutes, no right or wrong. And I assure you the murder of innocent children is always wrong, including by abortion. Abortion has diminished the value of children.

Suicide has become an acceptable action and has further emboldened these criminals. And we are seeing an epidemic increase in murder-suicide attacks on our children.

Unsurprisingly, these bluntly expressed notions caused a stir, prompting an article in the Washington Post and a response from Couric on the CBS website. Here's the crux of her argument:

We knew when we decided to put on this segment that a lot of people would disagree with it. We also knew some might even find it repugnant. (Some of you made that point loud and clear!)

But that is the very essence of what we try to do with the "freeSpeech" segment. This is a platform for our viewers to hear from a wide range of people — those who may share your views, and those who don't.

When we approached Brian Rohrbough and asked him his thoughts about this latest school shooting, this essay was the result. We understood that people may disagree with what he said, and with what he believes. But censoring or attempting to re-shape his opinion would be antithetical to the very idea of free speech.

This is a nation built on dialogue and debate. And, most importantly, on freedom of speech. As George Washington once said, "If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter."

We hope "freeSpeech" can add more voices to the national discussion. At the very least, last night, we got people talking.

And we hope the conversation is just beginning.

Couric was hardly hands-off when it came to Rohrbough's appearance. She personally phoned Channel 4, Denver's CBS affiliate, and asked a news exec for the name of someone with a Columbine connection to share his feelings about the latest tragedy at an American school. She may have gotten more than she bargained for from Rohrbough, but she deserves credit for airing and defending his words. If CBS is serious about making freeSpeech more than a gimmick, it needs to give participants the opportunity to express themselves in frank and potentially controversial language, just as Rohrbough did.

Now, Couric's challenge is to prevent others around her from getting (pardon the pun) gun-shy when booking guests. If the only folks invited in the future have nothing to offer but safe answers and pabulum, viewers will have one less reason to watch. -- Michael Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts