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Serving up an earful is not job of waitress

It was bad enough a couple of years back when I found myself writing nice things about state Rep. Carl Littlefield who, I suspect, voted for Rosewood reparations, publicly praised The Bridges of Madison County and actually made an environmentally sound suggestion just to upset me.

But now, in the same decade, I find myself having to defend U.S. Rep. Charles Canady, with whom I have as much in common politically as Jesse Jackson and Jesse Helms do.

In the matter of the waitress who got canned for mouthing off to Canady, I find myself, painfully, on Canady's side.

I was sitting with colleagues once at lunch in a now defunct (surprise, surprise) cafeteria in west Pasco when an employee there walked up and asked if we were from the Times.

We said we were, and she, naming one of our colleagues, asked us if we knew him.

We did.

"Then tell him for me," she said, "that he is a son of a bitch!" and flounced off.

First off, the guy is no such thing. She was mad because he had not seen her particular gripe du jour a few weeks earlier as press-stopping news. More important, we wondered, why were we spending our money to hear some ill-mannered woman's obscene opinions of our co-workers?

It's a pretty common thing in journalism, especially if you are high profile. I had heard a lot _ loudly and sometimes obscenely _ over the years, and had even been physically assaulted once by people who didn't like something I, or somebody I worked with, wrote. For a really fun restaurant trip, we can visit someplace our food critic has panned the previous week.

It can be argued that we are private employees of private businesses and entitled to a greater amount of privacy than those, like Canady, on the public payroll.

But there is still a line, and the waitress went over it. Restaurant chains that, like the one for which she works, promise hospitality and good food do not add the subtext "if we like your politics" to their advertising. Neither do they have signs on the door saying, "No Shoes, No Shirts, A History of Conservative Geekdom _ No Service."

A restaurant employee's job is to serve food, make sure the water glasses are full and then disappear for 45 minutes while the customer waits for a check _ period.

I have also heard First Amendment rights raised in the food server's defense.

Nonsense.

The First Amendment guarantees us the right to free speech. It doesn't protect us from the consequences of exercising that right.

You are completely free to tell your boss' wife, at the annual Christmas party, that her last face lift gives her the look of a permanently surprised raccoon. (Not MY boss' wife, I assure you. We're speaking generically here.)

He, on the following day, is perfectly allowed to exercise his right to free speech, as far as I'm concerned, by telling you not to let the door hit you in your Trent Lott.

Those of us who exercise that right in print do so knowing that we often attract contumely upon ourselves, our spouses and our employers, and that we may be fired, punched in the nose, or the subject of really nasty letters to the editor by unnamed persons convinced we are the Antichrist.

We can also get our butts sued off if we happen to be both wrong and malicious about what we write, which is why I always try to be truthful when I'm malicious, and have been, so far.

We seemed to have raised (and become, in my case) an entire generation that was absent from school the day there was a lecture on responsibility and consequences in a free society.

We forget that Henry Thoreau went to jail, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers got murdered, and Nathan Hale got to know the business end of a rope en route to legendhood _ and there were a whole lot of fire hoses, firing squads and Hollywood blacklists in between.

Next time you feel the need to tell Canady what a jerk you think he is, call his office . . . or visit, if you don't mind standing in a long line.

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