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Speaking at a Harvard Law School Forum last night, former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III defended federal restrictions on the content of Planned Parenthood consultations while warning of the danger that "politically correct" speech codes pose to First Amendment rights.
Approximately 100 students filled a classroom in Austin Hall to hear the controversial business executive, lawyer and former professor tackle a variety of free speech issues facing the nation in a forum entitled "Freedom, Free Speech and the Courts."
Meese began by stressing the importance of ensuring continued free speech in this country.
"Freedom of speech is the very essence of people's ability to express themselves, join with those sharing their views and influence the political and policy-making apparatus," Meese said, adding that he viewed freedom of the press as an important corollary to freedom of speech.
But Meese said he does not believe that these rights are absolute.
"An abridgement of the freedom of the press may be applicable when it comes to some matters of national security and public safety," he said. "It's important to balance people's rights with everyone's fundamental rights."
In a question-and-answer session that followed the presentation, Meese answered questions about debates surrounding "political correctness," the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and Planned Parenthood.
Calling hate speech statutes "generally unnecessary," Meese said, "There are adequate means [for the courts] to deal with the act itself without having to predicate an element of the crime on the content."
Meese said that the greatest threat to the freedom of speech today comes from college campuses. The former attorney general said he is troubled by the institution of speech codes on what he claimed are 60 percent of the nation's college campuses.
"Rarely does the suppression of speech wipe out the underlying problem...[Such codes] only exacerbate it in the long run," he said.
He said that though offensive speech may be "sometimes painful and abusive" it is "the price we pay for living in a free society."
When asked about the recent court ruling forbidding staffers at Planned Parenthood clinics from discussing the option of abortion with patients, Meese said, "it's not a free speech issue. When the federal government gives out money, it comes with strings attached."
He later altered this stance slightly saying that though "Planned Parenthood establishments receiving the money have every right to express their own opinions "but had to do so outside the capacity in which they were being funded by the federal government.
Meese said the NEA should be abolished. "Government should get out of the business of deciding what's good art and bad art," he said.
He suggested providing tax credits to private donors as a way of allowing individuals to choose for themselves which artwork to sponsor.
Meese currently works at two conservative "think tanks."
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