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News Opinion Editorial

The tweet was offensive, the reaction, un-American

President Barack Obama's rousing defense of American free speech and the First Amendment at the United Nations this week made his country proud. In the context of rioting in the Muslim world over an anti-Islam video, the message was overdue: In a free society, even hateful messages are protected, and placing restrictions on speech helps lead to political oppression.

That's not to suggest Americans endorse the video in question and its smears against the Prophet Muhammad. But the proper response to vile, awful messages is not violence, or the threat of violence, but more speech that will, as Mr. Obama observed, "lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect."

But even as the leader of the free world was patiently trying to explain how people in other countries should defend the rights of others, his own countrymen were struggling with the concept less than 200 miles away. A Baltimore resident and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine worker was receiving threats of bodily harm, rape and death over the Internet.

What had that woman, Katie Moody, done to justify this sudden reign of terror against her? She had posted a truly tasteless remark about Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith, whose younger brother died in a motorcycle accident less than 24 hours prior to the Ravens game against the New England Patriots on Sunday night — a contest the Ravens won, thanks in no small part to Mr. Smith's efforts.

"Hey, Smith, how about you call your bro and tell him all about your wi---ohhhh. Wait. #TooSoon?" is what Ms. Moody, a Patriots fan, posted on Twitter after the game. The message was spotted by others and soon became a red-hot item online. The response became so great that it crashed at least one website and forced a public response from Hopkins.

Admittedly, what Ms. Moody typed on her Twitter account was about as asinine a comment as can be fit into a 140-character tweet. If meant as a joke, it wasn't in the least bit funny. It went beyond mere insensitivity and showed a shocking lack of judgment, even by the raucous standards of online sports fandom.

But she also had every right to dishonor herself without a veritable football fatwa being called against her. Criticizing her tweet is one thing (and the vast majority of the responses have reportedly been angry but reasonable), but to threaten violence while also posting her address holds a frightening parallel to what's happened overseas.

Given the often-inflammatory nature of social media, the general coarsening of public debate and the almost religious fervor of footballs fans in this country, the incident probably shouldn't be too shocking. Worse things have likely been said by football fans and probably will be today, tomorrow and the day after. Yet the juxtaposition of events — President Obama defending free speech at UN while Baltimore woman gets death threats over comment — is jarring, to say the least. A violent reaction to unpopular speech is clearly not unique to the Arab world.

On Wednesday, Ms. Moody offered to the media a written apology. "I profoundly regret my thoughtless, tasteless, and completely inappropriate comment, and I deeply lament the pain that it has caused. I would like to apologize to Torrey Smith, his family, friends, and everyone who was distressed by what I said. I should have been offering sympathy and compassion for such a terrible and heart-breaking loss. I set high standards for myself as a person and as a fan, and I fell short of these standards. This was a horrible lapse in judgment that I will always regret. I am truly sorry."

Ravens fans ought to accept that and move on. Ms. Moody's punishment is that her inappropriate comment will likely follow her around on the Internet for many years to come. Such is the power of the Information Age where, for good or bad, the digital evidence lasts forever. A tweet that might have received about 10 seconds of consideration will be her legacy.

Perhaps Mr. Obama's speech at the UN ought to be required reading by his fellow Americans and particularly our "warring tribal factions" of rapid sports fans. Even the president acknowledged he must endure "awful things" said about him every day. There's a woman in Baltimore who knows what he's talking about. Let's leave her alone.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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