It's been a tough couple of weeks for free speech here in the United States.

At least that's the view of many people who are watching the health-care debate unfold. The cause — what appears to be organized rabble-rousing at the town hall meetings looking into Barack Obama's proposed reforms.

These meetings, which are generally chaired by the local congressman or woman during the August break, normally draw modest turnouts.

Now, they are standing room only, with many constituents being turned away when the occupancy limits at the local school or town hall have been reached.


Temperatures are rising at town hall meetings in the U.S., set up to discuss health-care reform, like this one in Alhambra, Calif., in August 2009. (Associated Press)

Organizers are saying that out-of-district voters are being bused in by right-wing groups opposed to health-care reform.

In fact, many come with professionally made signs and carry "talking-point" cards to buttress their side of the debate.

They have also been accused of shouting down the meetings' organizers when they speak and perpetuating falsehoods and unfounded rumours about Congress's current health-care plan.

Watching these meetings unfold, David Gergen, who has worked for five presidents on both sides of the aisle, told a CNN audience recently that "America's ability to self-govern is under serious attack."

Been down this road

There is no doubt President Obama's plan to reform American health care is tailor-made for right-wing activists.

Like the tragic Terri Schiavo case of a few years ago—- the story of the family fight to remove the feeding tube that had kept this poor woman alive, in a vegetative state, for 15 years — health care, too, is full of ideological clashing points.

Schiavo was a months-long television story and her supporters gave no quarter.

But the prayer vigils, demonstrations and efforts to demonize the husband all fell away when courts gave their approval to remove the feeding tube.

Subsequent polls showed that, by a more than two-to-one margin, Americans sided with the husband. But that wasn't the image you would have had from the earlier media frenzy.

Learning curve

Of course, even if you don't agree with those who reject health-care reform, let alone with the methods some of them are using, what is wrong with exposing potential reforms to strong criticism?

The town hall antics have now forced Obama to the public stage to defend his efforts and that is where a president is often at his best.

Earlier this week, Obama held a town hall meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., where he told his audience to beware of false information.

Health-care reform will not eliminate Medicare, he said, referring to the government program that provides health care for roughly 45 million older Americans. These and other charges, he said, are just "scare tactics."

But the president didn't get everything his way on stage. Questions about whether or not tax dollars would be used to pay for abortions received incomplete answers. This needs to be firmed up if he is going to carry the day.

The president also claimed in Portsmouth that the American Association for Retired Persons was supporting his plan, which is not correct. The AARP quickly put out a press release to that effect.

The much-respected organization supports health-care reform, but has not yet supported the president's plan or any of the bills now on the table.

'Death panels'

Then there are the charges that the president and his bureaucrats are creating "death panels."

Protesters have been carrying signs asking who decides "when grannie should die." Or whether children with birth defects would receive medical care. 

There is nothing in the reform proposals that would suggest any such "death panels."

But the charges look to be having at least some public resonance. Perhaps because there is a provision that offers the older, Medicare patients an optional service known as "advanced care planning consultation."

It's a service that would be publicly paid for and would allow patients and their families to discuss with their doctors the uncomfortable subject of end-of-life care.

It is voluntary, not mandatory. But the White House and other reform proponents now agree that the language surrounding this sensitive issue needs to be written more clearly.

As before

But for all the concern about the strong attacks and lack of decorum in this debate, the polls show very little movement in public opinion.

Sixty-nine per cent of Americans say they are closely following these town hall meetings, according to the most recent USA Today/Gallup poll. Thirty-four per cent of those surveyed say they agree with the protesters, 21 per cent are turned off by them and 36 per cent say it makes no difference at all.

Overall, 49 per cent of Americans disapprove of Obama's health-care plan while 41 per cent approve — figures that have barely changed all summer long.

During the Depression in the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrestled with similar political opposition when he proposed Social Security.

The program, which is viewed as politically untouchable today, was buffeted by the partisan winds of his day as well as a multitude of compromise proposals.

FDR's legislation was gutted in the end, but it was a start. A start that has been much improved over the past 74 years.

This president looks determined to continue his town hall meetings, as he headed out to Montana and Colorado on the weekend.

There will no doubt be others to come. Just as there will be more protesters and signs and even some more nasty Hitler-like comparisons. 

Not all the over-statement will be from the right. And some of the language will get ugly at times. But hopefully a little knowledge will seep out as well.