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By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

The last 24 hours haven’t been the best for the concept of free speech.  Moments after smacking a game-winning home run last night, Sean Rodriguez smacked that portion of the Phillie fan base with the temerity to boo him beforehand.  Those fans “seem[] pretty entitled,” he whined to the press. “You’re just making yourself look pretty bad as an individual, as a person, as a fan.”  Rodriguez was mired in a 1-21 slump before his game winner and is currently slashing .214/.316/.393.

This morning the Washington Post reported that New York Times columnist Bret Stephens took after a George Washington University professor who called him a bedbug in a tweet that generated all of nine “likes.”  Nobody cared, apparently, other than Stephens, who emailed the professor and essentially said “say it to my face, why dontcha.”  Stephens also cc’d the school’s provost in what seems to have been an attempt to bully and intimidate the professor.  To repeat, in case anybody missed it, the professor’s sin was a silly joke wherein he called Stephens a bedbug.  Not funny, perhaps, but nothing worse than that.

I had my own “Bret Stephens moment” last summer when I tweeted out to my empire of 91 followers a query wherein I wondered why Stephens just looked so different on television recently than I had remembered him.  Stephens has always struck me as something of a phony – something of a right wing bomb thrower when protected first by the Wall Street Journal’s masthead and then the Times’s, but a gentle, reasonable-seeming soul when parading himself on MSNBC, where the sometimes asinine remarks he prides himself on in his columns would no doubt receive immediate pushback from the other panelists.  His visage struck me, at least at the time, as emblematic of his personality, so I commented on it: "Is it me or has Bret Stephens gotten some face work recently? The guy looks younger each time he's on TV. Hair plugs, perhaps? Something's going on, though."  The post was in jest (I have no idea if he’d ever had any work done and, anyway, I think that in my twisted way I was actually paying him a compliment, at least on the surface) but, at least I hoped, suggestive of the idea that the guy we see on MSNBC is a less-than-authentic talking head who bears no resemblance to the guy we read in print.

Within an hour I was stunned to find an email from Stephens sitting in my in-box.  No, he wrote, he never had any cosmetic surgery.  In fact, he stressed, “I have no idea what hair plugs even are.”  Overlooking my suspicion that he was, at least in part, lying (who doesn’t know what hair plugs are?) was the oddity of his replying to my tweet at all. Why would he care?  How would he even know that I had tweeted anything in the first place?  Only an incredibly fragile person would search his name over and over, several times each day, to find the dandelions in the weeds that were my, and later the GWU prof’s, tweets. 

Or maybe it’s something more than that.  Maybe Stephens’s pique arose from the notion that someone other than Bret Stephens was making use of the public square.  He was the national columnist, he was the network talking head, his voice mattered.  Mine, not so much.  Or at all.

Sean Rodriguez’s comments last night struck the same chord.  He was the Major League ballplayer.  He was the guy on the field, in the spotlight.  His was the voice that counted.  The nobodies in the stands booing him?  Not only shouldn’t they boo, they didn’t deserve a voice at all.  Oh, they could cheer if they liked.  Otherwise, they should just shut up and watch.

Problem is, that’s not the way it works.  The public square is, well, public.  Some, like Stephens and Rodriguez, speak from a platform that’s permanently affixed; others have to shout from the crowd, when something in particular moves them to speak and be heard.  But they’re entitled to the air just as much as anybody else. 

I don’t know Bret Stephens but I have to assume that he’s sent a lot of emails like the ones he sent me and the GWU prof.  All of them attempts to tamp down what he considers dissonant, mocking voices.  Speech – banal as it may be – that he believes diminishes him as the public arbiter of what’s right and wrong with America.  Rodriguez, too, seemed to be taken aback when the ticketholders in the public square that is Citizens Bank Park let him know what they thought of him and his slash line. 

 Free speech doesn’t work the way Stephens and Rodriguez think it does.  We don’t elect, appoint or anoint anybody to speak in our place in the public square.  Of course, Stephens and Rodriguez can say whatever it is they like.  But so can everybody else.

The public square is big.  It’s got enough room for everyone.  Nobody, not even a New York Times columnist or a Major League ballplayer, gets to clear it at their whim.  No matter how badly it bruises their fragile egos. 

Hey Bret, hey Sean:  BOOOOOOO.


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