Who is the worst person in the world? Keith Olbermann, host of MSNBC’s “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” has actually named me the “worst person in the world” for coming to the defense of political protesters who believed their First Amendment rights were being restricted.

It gets better. Not only was I dubbed the so-called “worst” person in the world for defending free speech, but Olbermann actually ranked my behavior more reprehensible than that of (in his view) corrupt politicians and heartless government administrators.

What exactly did I do to deserve this dubious honor?

On Dec. 10, 2009, I sent a letter to Congressman Tom Perriello (D-VA) voicing my concern that the location of his Charlottesville office in a downtown office complex interferes with his constituents’ First Amendment rights. The issue arose after The Rutherford Institute was contacted by representatives of the Jefferson Area Tea Party and the University of Virginia College Republicans. These groups had been prohibited from engaging in peaceful petitioning activities at Perriello’s office. These individuals were also informed that they would be deemed trespassers if they dared to demonstrate on political issues while in the parking lot to Perriello’s office complex. The College Republicans were actually met by the police and informed that they could not have access to the parking lot.

As I pointed out in my letter, Perriello’s decision to locate his office in a place where public petitioning and demonstrations may be restricted by those protecting their private property interests is at odds with his constituents’ rights to peacefully protest. Thus, I urged the congressman after his lease runs out to relocate his headquarters to a location where citizens’ rights to petition and demonstrate will not be squelched by private property concerns.

Incredibly, my suggestion landed me in the center of a firestorm over free speech that is raging still. It also resulted in my being honored with Olbermann’s “worst person” award, which I accepted with great humility. After all, how could I take issue with being recognized for standing up for free speech?

If anyone should understand about the nature of free speech, it should be Keith Olbermann. I have watched his show on MSNBC a number of times, and he is a living, breathing — and dare I say bombastic — example of one who fully exercises his right to free speech by attacking those whose politics run counter to his own.

Olbermann, a mouthpiece for the liberal left, is not unlike his extreme right-wing counterparts in his intolerance for that which runs counter to his political beliefs. This is where the right and left converge and become almost mirror images of the same totalitarian mindset.

We would all do well to remember what the great French dissident and writer Voltaire once observed, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I’ve been a constitutional lawyer for more than 30 years, and I can tell you that you don’t have to agree with the people you defend as long as they are exercising their free speech.

Frankly, we need more — not less — people exercising their rights, because the Constitution is on life support. One by one, its vital systems are shutting down. The first to come under attack was the Fourth Amendment, which was greatly weakened by the Bush administration and continues to be undermined by the Obama administration. Yet it is the First Amendment which is being barraged by forces beyond the government, ranging from political correctness to intolerance of “extremism,” whatever that is deemed to be.

The worst part of all, however, is that the American people, ignorant about their rights, are equally unaware that the document which Abraham Lincoln called “the only safeguard of our liberties” is being whittled away. I fear that if the American people don’t become informed and vigorously assert their rights soon, one morning we’re all going to wake up and find ourselves living in a police state.

So, to Keith Olbermann, I say thank you very much for giving me a golden opportunity to highlight what is happening to our rights and what free speech is really all about. I hope that someday you will be as avid about protecting free speech as the one to whom you conferred the gold award for the “worst person in the world.”

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.

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