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ONLINE DOCUMENT: THE FIRST AMENDMENT TAKES A SERIOUS BEATING

Of the Bill of Rights, the 10 original amendments to our Constitution, none has taken a worse shellacking than the first, the one guaranteeing freedoms of speech and the press.

Just listen to America today! Rarely is heard an encouraging word. For proof, tune your radio to the rude rantings of "shock stars" such as Bob Grant, Don Imus and Howard Stern. They and their imitators create audiences by being deliberately, viciously nasty. They go to the edges of slander and defamation. They deserve to live out their days in a home for the deaf.They make even Rush Limbaugh, the voice of the Republican Right, sound shy and circumspect. You know Rush; he's the guy described by Al Franken, in a Liberal Democrat counterpunch, as "a Big, fat Idiot."

So much for politeness.

I don't worry so much what the "hate radio" gang says; I don't have to listen. I am not surprised that radio stations, enslaved by listener ratings, give them air time.

What is disturbing is the large number of Americans who not only hear the sermons of intolerance and prejudice but are stupid enough to believe them.

And yet, when our national and local leaders are constantly and colorfully abusive of the rival political party, what can we expect of the poor, beleaguered average man?

When the party controlling Congress actually makes a list of disparaging words to be directed against the opposition, what kind of lexicon is likely to be used by the professional put-down artists?

I can thank freedom of the press for a brochure I received, totally unsolicited, which carried a non-profit organization permit of the U.S. Postal Service. This multi-colored pamphlet imparted the startling news that there is a "World Conspiracy forged by the super rich."

It said that 10 "Wise Men" comprising the "Inner Circle" of the "Illuminati" were "plotting the future of the world."

I was further advised that these conspirators were "infidels maniacally driven by a witch's brew of vanity and greed" and that "their plot ... will bring disaster and chaos to every corner of the globe."

Then the sender provocatively asked, "Does the Inner Circle also control Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, Colin Powell and Ross Perot?"

I was fascinated at the thought of those men on the same side for the first time.

Exercising my freedom not to be conned by kooks, I resisted sending $15 for the book they were hustling.

Only in America!