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APRIL 17, 2003

By Ciro Scotti

Liberation Begins at Home

The war against Saddam was at least partly about freeing the Iraqis, so why are Americans' right to speak their minds being trampled? So the war wasn't all about the oil, right? It wasn't about making the Middle East safe for Israel, right? It wasn't about settling a personal score with the assassin who tried to take out the President's old man, right? Right. The war in Iraq was about -- stop me if you've heard this before -- destroying those still-elusive weapons of mass destruction and ending a heartless dictatorship that harbored terrorists. But as enunciated by one of the egghead architects of the Iraq attack, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, eliminating the regime of Saddam Hussein was and is also about creating a template for democracy in a region where freedom has not rung since Abraham was a pup.

And what do we mean by freedom, boys and girls? Well, a couple of the things we mean are freedom of expression and freedom of speech. So how in Saddam's hell does this happen:

First Lady Laura Bush cancels a White House poetry symposium after learning that some of the poets who had been invited plan to read poems opposing war in Iraq.

A lawyer is arrested at Crossgates Mall near Albany, N.Y., and charged with trespassing because he's wearing a T-shirt that says: "Peace on Earth."

A young woman basketball player at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., is the subject of taunts, threats, and demonstrations for turning away from the flag in silent protest against war.

Country-music band Dixie Chicks take endless heat from fans after singer Natalie Maines tells an audience in London: "Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas."

A TV commercial for credit-card giant Visa starring Martin Sheen, who plays the President on West Wing, is suddenly dropped following complaints about the actor's antiwar and anti-Bush statements.

The United Way of Tampa Bay cancels a fund-raising event to have been headlined by Susan Sarandon because of her outspokenness on the war in Iraq.

And in the most eggregious assault on the rights of red-blooded Americans to speak their piece, Dale Petroskey, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., cancels an Apr. 26 celebration of the ballpark classic Bull Durham because the film stars antiwar activist Tim Robbins and wife Sarandon.

That caused Hollywood celebrities to rally round Robbins and Sarandon, with even Clint Eastwood telling Variety's Amy Acherd that the pair has the right "to say what they want to say, when they want to say it."

Petroskey's heavy-handedness also prompted the reknowned baseball writer Roger Kahn to cancel a scheduled appearance at the Hall of Fame in August. In a letter to Petroskey, Kahn wrote: "By canceling the Hall of Fame anniversary celebration of Bull Durham for political reasons, you are, far from supporting our troops, defying the noblest of the American spirit. You are choking freedom of dissent."

On Monday, Apr. 14, another American said something about free speech: "Wonderful thing about free get a lot of opinions. Some of them are right, and some of them are wrong. But that's what we believe." That American was visiting soldiers at Bethesda Medical Center who were wounded in Iraq. His name is George W. Bush.

Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, offers his views every week in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BusinessWeek Online Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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