Question: What do you think of what Bill Maher said on his show? Do you think he should be taken off the air? — Pearl

Televisionary: Honestly, Pearl? To me, it's not so much what he said as it is his right to say it. For the record, I've never been crazy about Maher or Politically Incorrect. I find him to be unbearably smarmy and largely unfunny, plus he's hosting a show the very title of which screams, "Watch us 'cause we're edgy and might offend your sensibilities!"

But why was everyone so surprised when he did just that?

And for those who didn't actually see Maher's Sept. 17 show, most of the reports quoting him as simply calling the U.S. "cowardly" weren't quite fair. If you read the entire transcript on ABC's site, it's clear his comments come off much worse when quoted out of context.

In Maher's defense, I think his biggest sin was a poor choice of wording in a larger discussion about how our country is viewed by others and, more importantly, about how crucial it is for us to understand that perspective if we want to deal with the matter effectively. Nonetheless, "coward" is a highly charged label and even though he chose it to play off President Bush's use of the word, aiming it at a country that just saw thousands of its citizens murdered on TV, was insensitive at best and demonstrated bad timing, even for a guy who's paid to air potentially unpopular opinions.

No, I don't think Maher should lose his show for one ill-expressed thought. After weathering a storm of criticism, he issued an apology to anyone who misunderstood him, said his take on the situation "should have been expressed differently'' and then pledged a week's salary toward relief efforts. That sounds like "sorry" to me.

But my opinion alone matters little. While free speech is the American way, there's nothing in the Constitution granting Maher or anyone else the right to a network TV soapbox, just as there's nothing guaranteeing ABC sponsors who will stick with the show no matter what its host says. Maher's free to speak his mind on the air as long as his bosses let him. If those bosses decide its not in their best interest to keep him on, he'll be stuck airing those same views over drinks with his buddies. The advertisers are free to yank their money, as FedEx and Sears did, if they don't want their company name associated with what Maher says. That's just business and that, too, is the American way.

It's all part of our freedom — and it's never as neat and easy as we think it's going to be.