Is it appropriate to defend free speech even when it’s harsh or degrading? Whatever their political views, do people have a right to express them? Not for the first time, such questions are being debated in the court of public opinion.
The proximate reason for the debate, this month, is some nasty things said about a law student by Rush Limbaugh, a man who – like Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, Michael Moore, Bill O’Reilly, Ed Schultz, Michael Savage, and Bill Maher – makes his living by saying provocative and sometimes ugly things through the media of TV, film, or radio.
For those who believe in freedom of speech, there’s a little bit of good news amid the bad in the Limbaugh kerfuffle, but a couple things demand to be acknowledged right from the start: Neither Rush, nor any of the other on-air opinionmeisters, are scholars, statesmen, or intellectuals. They are, instead, political entertainers whose appeal reaches as far as those who share their political views, and not one inch further.
This, and one other thing: The coordinated attacks on Limbaugh and his show’s advertisers is the product of the calculated strategy of a group – Media Matters for America (MMA) – that was created precisely to try to silence, by whatever means, right-leaning organizations and individuals.
The bad news in the Limbaugh affair is that while some people are recommending that the FCC take him off the air (Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem), or think he should be prosecuted (Gloria Allred), and after a number of his advertisers have been cowed into dropping his show, most of the media and journalism organizations one might expect to defend him have remained silent.
From the professional journalism societies to the university-based journalism reviews and the legacy “First Amendment” groups, virtually nothing has been issued in opposition to MMA’s tactics of intimidation.
It could, of course, be argued that MMA is merely exercising its own free speech rights, and that is certainly true, but that fact need not strike dumb those people who, exercising their free speech rights, could and should criticize MMA’s tactics.
According to an AP story, the next step in the war against Limbaugh is a radio ad campaign in eight cities, using as a template MMA’s earlier campaign against Glenn Beck. Meanwhile, the head of Media Matters, David Brock, is gloating about the negative impact his organization’s efforts are having on Limbaugh’s advertisers.
In a piece published in Politico, titled “Ad exodus dooms Limbaugh’s model,” Brock says he is confident, “seeing the reaction over the previous two weeks, that sponsors will take their ad dollars elsewhere.” He also says, in a sentence sure to be admired by fanatics and totalitarians everywhere, that MMA “along with numerous other groups, have begun to educate (emphasis added) advertisers about the damage their financial support of Limbaugh’s program can do to their brands.”
Looking beyond the campaign against Limbaugh per se,one can see that if this kind of thing persists it won't end well for freedom of speech. Already, for instance, a piece in the American Spectator calls for Rush admirers to contact those of Limbaugh’s advertisers who have dropped his show, the kind of thing that, along with campaigns like MMA’s, may in time have the practical effect of moving advertisers out of radio altogether.
In addition, there’s the distinct possibility that conservative groups will ape the tactics used against Limbaugh, and begin themselves to use advertiser intimidation and/or government policy to effectively shut down speech they don’t like. Just last week Brent Bozell, head of the conservative media watchdog group Media Research Center, which has used both tactics in the past, said of the MMA campaign: “We all have free speech.”
As mentioned at the outset, there’s a little bit of light breaking through the gloom of this matter. Though he doesn’t reference the Limbaugh affair, liberal law professor Jonathan Turley penned a piece in the Los Angeles Times this month titled “Free speech under fire,” in which he bemoans the fact that “Western nations appear to have fallen out of love with free speech and are criminalizing more and more kinds of speech through the passage of laws banning hate speech, blasphemy, and discriminatory language.”
At about the same time, liberal icon Michael Kinsley wrote a piece for Bloomberg titled “Case Against Case Against Rush Limbaugh.” Among other poignant observations, Kinsley says this:
Do we want conservatives organizing boycotts of advertisers on MSNBC, or either side boycotting companies that do business with other companies who advertise on Limbaugh’s show, or Rachel Maddow’s?...
As we all know, Limbaugh’s First Amendment rights aren’t involved here – freedom of speech means freedom from interference by the government. But the spirit of the First Amendment, which is that suppressing speech is bad, still applies. If you don’t care for something Rush Limbaugh has said, say why and say it better.
In a perfect world, one wouldn’t need to be a policy wonk or a constitutional expert to understand the wisdom in this. But in this world, who knows?
This piece was first published in TVNewsCheck on March 26, 2012. The views expressed above are those of the writer and not those of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.