Somebody - we think it might have been Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes - said that freedom of speech means freedom not just for the speech we like but, more importantly, freedom for the speech we don't like.
In this frenzied presidential election campaign, hysteria is mounting on both sides and people are showing their dislike for other people's exercise of freedom of speech in some rather alarming ways.
Earlier this month, somebody threw a Molotov cocktail and charred a giant McCain/Palin sign that a man had set up on his Southeast Portland lawn.
In a notorious case in Pittsburgh, a young McCain campaign worker told police that a 6-foot-4 black man had mugged her at knifepoint and, after seeing the McCain/Palin sticker on her car, knocked her down and scratched the letter "B" (for "Barack," presumably) on her cheek. The woman later admitted she had made the whole thing up.
In Tennessee earlier this week, the feds busted two neo-Nazi skinheads who had talked about gunning down and beheading a bunch of black schoolchildren and then going after Obama.
All across the country, there have been reports of vehicles with Obama or McCain bumper stickers getting keyed and their drivers being flipped off and otherwise insulted.
Here in Central Oregon the nastiness has been milder - thankfully. But there are numerous reports of Obama and McCain signs being defaced or swiped off people's lawns. And in principle, that's just as much a violation of our neighbors' freedom of speech as throwing a firebomb or damaging a car would be.
The presidential campaigns bear much of the burden of blame for the nationwide epidemic of political incivility - especially the McCain/Palin campaign, which has made the vilest and most vicious personal attacks against Obama a routine tactic. In robocalls, in Web videos and on the stump, McCain and Palin have repeatedly insinuated - and in some cases stated outright - that Obama is a socialist, a communist, a pal of terrorists, an anti-American, somebody who will destroy our whole way of life if elected. These scurrilous attacks have whipped some McCain/Palin supporters into rage, which in turn has generated a backlash of rage from the other side.
But denouncing the campaign for its ugliness does not excuse us - whichever side we're on - for trampling on the free-speech rights of others, even in petty ways like vandalizing and stealing lawn signs.
As the campaign lurches (blessedly) toward its conclusion, it's time for everybody to pause, sit back, take a deep breath and calm down. We need to remind ourselves that neither Barack Obama nor Joe Biden nor John McCain nor Sarah Palin is the Antichrist. We need to remember that, red state or blue state, Democrat or Republican, progressive or conservative or in between, we are all Americans, with a common history and a common destiny - and a proud common tradition of respect for human rights, including freedom of speech.
It's time - indeed, it's way past time - to give political intolerance and incivility THE BOOT.