Bill O’Reilly, the death of Dr. Tiller, and free speech

Did Bill O’Reilly’s speech about Dr. George Tiller violate the law? Probably not.  It is despicable? Certainly. Should it be condemned? Absolutely.

Following news of Dr. George Tiller’s murder, journalists quickly began looking at the organizations and individuals who’ve taken radical positions against abortion providers.  The most mainstream is Bill O’Reilly, whose show on the Fox network has frequently mentioned the doctor in the past 4 years.  In his signature, hyperbolic, style, O’Reilly called the doctor “Tiller the Baby Killer.”

As Gabriel Winant writes in Salon:

[…] there’s no other person [than Bill O’Reilly] who bears as much responsibility for the characterization of Tiller as a savage on the loose, killing babies willy-nilly thanks to the collusion of would-be sophisticated cultural elites, a bought-and-paid-for governor and scofflaw secular journalists.”

We’ve seen – and defended – offensive speech in mainstream media.  In 2007, we denounced Don Imus’ firing from CBS radio for his “nappy haired hos” comment.  That statement – offensive as it is – seems relatively benign in the face of O’Reilly’s history of vitriol targeted against Tiller and his subsequent murder.

O’Reilly’s contribution to the abortion discussion: diminishing and mocking the compelling reasons women need late-term abortions, comparing Tiller’s work to Nazi practices, comparing protecting women who got abortions with protecting child rapists. It was a deliberate attempt to inflame public opinion, distort facts, and propagate misinformation. O’Reilly’s hyperbolic rhetoric plays into the history of threats and murders of doctors and clinic staff members who provide abortions, ignoring that this is a constitutionally protected right.

O’Reilly may be entitled to spew his vitriol, but others are equally free – in fact encouraged – to verbally attack him in return.  Tiller’s death reveals our own American form of fundamentalism.  O’Reilly and Fox should hear from all those who condemn this kind of speech as irresponsible, hateful, and unethical.


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