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American conservative pundit Ann Coulter gives a talk on Political Correctness, Media Bias and Freedom of Speech in Calgary, Alta. on Thursday March 25, 2010.Larry MacDougall/The Canadian Press

In a U.S. election year that's seen chairs, birds and binders rise to comedic prominence on the Internet, leave it to Ann Coulter to be the most offensive and unfunny of her political brethren.

During the final presidential debate on Monday, the conservative pundit took to Twitter to comment on Mitt Romney's strategy of not verbally attacking Barack Obama. She could have said any number of things with 140 characters. "Sound strategy, Mitt, you don't want to come off as antagonistic to potential voters." Or even, "Knock 'em dead! Go Team Republican!!1! #ourtime." Instead, she tweeted: "I highly approve of Romney's decision to be kind and gentle to the retard."

The R-word? Really? The Internet did not laugh. The reaction to Coulter has, thankfully, been swift and condemning. (For those 1,417 people and counting that have favourited Coulter's tweet on Twitter: Shame on you.) The most damning note, though, comes from an open letter written by Special Olympian John Franklin Stephens, reports the Los Angeles Times.

"Come on Ms. Coulter, you aren't dumb and you aren't shallow. So why are you continually using a word like the R-word as an insult?" begins his missive that's been shared by tens of thousands of users on social media. The letter is worth reading in whole – Stephens, who is 30 years old and has Down syndrome, is clearly not holding anything back. "Well, Ms. Coulter, you, and society, need to learn that being compared to people like me should be considered a badge of honor."

As CNN reports, Stephens is simply the angriest in a long line of people who deal with mental disabilities in some way in everyday life. Mommy blogger Ellen Seidman, who has been writing about the challenges of raising a son with special needs, notes that Coulter has been guilty of using the word repeatedly in the past – not to mention her subsequent use of the word again two tweets after the initial blast.

Coulter, for her part, has not responded to any of the criticism, though her passively leaving the tweet publicly intact might be saying enough.

But a simpler question remains: Why is a fully grown adult – albeit an incendiary one – using such language? And, sorry, Ann, you can't hide behind your professional punditry this time. CNN notes that, in 2010, use of the words "retard" and "retardation" in U.S. health, education and labour laws had been banned by Congress in favour of "intellectual disability." They also report that the American Psychiatric Association, which publishes the mental-health bible Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, plans to replace the phrase "mental retardation" with "intellectual development disorder" in its upcoming fifth edition.

Regardless of any social stigmas about mental health that Coulter conjures with her tweet, the sadder character statement is that Coulter is no better than an immature school-aged bully who uses words to hurt others. I can imagine when Stephens may have first heard the word, and he hints at it in his letter: "I thought first of asking whether you meant to describe the President as someone who was bullied as a child by people like you," he writes, "but rose above it to find a way to succeed in life as many of my fellow Special Olympians have."

In a time when bullying is being seriously addressed because of its sometimes fatal results and the mental scars it can leave behind years after the fact, it's inexcusable for Coulter to behave like her words are innocently fanning the flames of political discourse. Instead, she's said much more about the way some of us still treat others, her and 1,417-plus other bullies.