The defendant: Talk radio.

The charge: Premeditated murder of the Senate immigration bill.

The verdict: Guilty.

A rush to judgment?

Hey, most of the relentlessly self-promoting right-wing talk-radio stars (Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Neal Boortz, Laura Ingraham, Michael Savage, et al) have, in effect, confessed to this crime against common sense by bragging about how powerfully they stirred their audiences' wrath against a balanced proposal that they consistently — and decisively — mislabeled as an "amnesty bill."

Sentencing-phase witnesses for the bipartisan prosecution:

--House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in a June 15 interview on Bloomberg Television: "Most of us here are at the mercy of hate radio every day of the week and that takes its toll."

--The Center for American Progress, in a June 20 study titled "The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio," reported that "76 percent of total talk radio programming in the top 10 markets is conservative, and 24 percent is progressive." The researchers suggest forcing broadcasters "who fail to abide by enforceable public interest obligations to pay a fee to support public broadcasting."

--Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., in Wednesday's edition of The Hill newspaper: "It's time to reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine. I have this old-fashioned attitude that when Americans hear both sides of the story, they're in a better position to make a decision."

--Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., in the June 15 New York Times: "Talk radio is running America. We have to deal with that problem."

--Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., lately called "Lindsey Grahamnesty" by Limbaugh and "former Senator Graham" by Ingraham, in the June 27 New York Times: "There's racism in this debate. Nobody likes to talk about it, but a very small percentage of people involved in this debate really have racial and bigoted remarks. The tone that we create around these debates, whether it be rhetoric in a union hall or rhetoric on talk radio, it can take people who are on the fence and push them over emotionally."

Strong evidence supporting our senior senator's "tone" case: On the June 21 edition of Boortz' Atlanta-based show (it airs here from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. weekdays on WTMA-AM 1250), the host, borrowing from a listener's e-mail, said: "When we defeat this illegal alien amnesty bill and when we yank out the welcome mat and they all start going back to Mexico, as a going-away gift let's all give them a box of nuclear waste. Give 'em all a little nuclear waste and let 'em take it on down there to Mexico. Tell 'em it can — it'll heat tortillas. Or something like that."

Boortz added: "You see, folks, you need to take a problem like this, and you can combine several problems and come up with solutions just by combining them, can't you? I love it. I love it. OK, go home. Here is a lovely parting gift. A home tortilla warmer."

Though that gagger of a gag didn't kill the bill, it did kill my appetite.

Yet that odious joke, and talk radio's indisputable part in scuttling immigration reform, doesn't warrant reviving the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters airing political opinions to give "equal time" to opposing views, with Big Brother keeping intimidating score.

President Reagan wisely scrapped that intrusive regulation. "The Great Communicator" knew we can't have a free country without free expression — on and off the airwaves.

Lott knows that, too. Despite his misgivings about how "talk radio defined" the immigration debate, he told "Fox News Sunday" last week: "The onus is not on them, it's on us to do a better job of communicating what we're trying to do."

Media manipulation of the masses, at home and abroad, isn't new. In quaint times when print ink could color popular will, William Randolph Hearst even twisted the 1898 facts in his newspapers to spark the Spanish-American War.

Those right-wing radio hosts, who at least have expanded comprehension of what legislative "cloture" means, dominate the free-market show biz of talk radio by beating the competition for listeners. Public broadcasting, funded in part by taxpayers, and most commercial-network TV news shows lean left. Highly rated, right-leaning Fox News is an exception.

But regardless of which way you lean, don't lose faith in our democratic republic every time the other side gets the most votes. Sure, leaving momentous policy decisions to an all-knowing editorial writer/Commentary page columnist would make this a better world. Unfortunately, that would violate fairness by dumping too much responsibility — and too much work — on one man.

So we immigration-bill backers lost another round. So what?

So win the next battle of ideas by using free speech more effectively — not by limiting it.

Frank Wooten is associate editor of The Post and Courier. His e-mail is wooten@postandcourier.com.