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Can We Talk?

Journalists go to jail for it, soldiers in Iraq die for it, and too many of us take it for granted.

The freedom to speak our minds without fearing a knock on the door—or on the head—is what separates us from a lot of countries we wouldn't want to live in.

You can hate the administration, or love it. Mock the president's malapropisms or praise his singleminded determination to stay the course wherever it leads us. Media outlets can even cover a Britney Spears court non-appearance as though it were a matter of life and death—though we wish they wouldn't—and they can do it with relative impugnity.

Try airing Lil' Kim Jung Il on North Korea's version of Comedy Central and see how long you remain on the air or the census rolls.

We are so used to our freedom to kibbitz and complain and deride and excoriate and investigate, that to marvel at it seems naïve. But it shouldn't. Protecting that freedom is everybody's business, but the media's especially since it is what separates us from jailed journalists the world over.

But before we start breaking out the champagne, recognize there are threats to that freedom. For one thing, there is still a lot you can't say on broadcast television.

At first blush, being able to say words that make others blush appears to pale in comparison to the freedom to criticize your political leaders. But the two are fraternal twins.

What if cursing on a broadcast is precisely meant to express frustration with the government? To bowdlerize that voice for fear of offending when offending is actually the point gets to the absurdity of the government picking our national vocabulary for us. Our guess is that if David Kelley's writers had the entire palette of the muscular English vocabulary to work with when they want to comment on war or racial or sexual intolerance, Boston Legal might not be legal at the FCC.

The Media Institute, a First Amendment think tank has, for several years, been pushing Freedom of Speech week, which starts Oct. 15. Too bad the planned shrine to the press, called the Newseum, couldn't have opened on this day as it was initially planning to do, with its stories-high First Amendment etched on the outside of the building. But it really needs to be carved on the outside of all government agencies everywhere.

We think it is important to think about free speech, about how much we have, how much more we would like to have and how we go about getting it. And it is a time for action, for finally pushing a federal shield law through Congress, for fighting for greater access to government documents, and for standing up to government content control rather than going along to get along.

On Oct. 16, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will call for a floor vote on H.R. 2102, titled The Free Flow of Information Act. If it passes, it would become the nation's first federal shield law. You know what to do. Call your representative. Urge viewers to do so, too. Express your opinion. It's what we Americans do.