Free society must tolerate even offensive publications

Editorial

Those who think government is necessary to uphold public morals and even put limits on offensive speech ought to pay attention to the controversy over O.J. Simpson’s book and TV special, “If I Did It.”

The publisher, Judith Regan, said she viewed the book — a supposedly fictional account of how O.J. might have killed his ex-wife and her friend — as a confession to the murders.

Whatever the rationale of those involved in publishing the book and airing the two-part sweeps-week TV special, the public was not amused. Most Americans believe Simpson got away with murder and are disgusted by the prospect of Simpson capitalizing on those slayings. A number of bookstores had refused to stock the book, and even the Borders chain said it would donate any profits from the book to charity.
Some Fox affiliates said they would not air the TV special.

In the midst of this fury, News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch (News Corp. owns Fox and Regan-Books) canceled the publication and the TV show.

“I and senior management agree with the American public that this was an ill-considered project,” Murdoch told The Associated Press. “We are sorry for any pain that this has caused the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson.”

No one was calling for the government to censor this book and TV show, but there is a sense among many people that the Federal Communications Commission ought to be stricter in the types of programs that are allowed on the airwaves. Yet we see here that public pressure and disdain has a way of chastening publishing and television executives.

Last week, also, comedian Michael Richards — the Kramer character from the “Seinfeld” show — burst into a racist outrage after being heckled during a stand-up comic routine. Here again we saw that the system polices itself, as an aghast public reacted in a way that will likely diminish or extinguish his career.

Again, no one that we know of has been pushing for government action, but these cases are examples of why such actions are not necessary. A free society must put up with a variety of publications, shows and speech that are offensive to many. If they are offensive to too many people, the heavy hand of public disapproval will impose the toughest possible sentence in a marketplace of ideas.