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Slutgate: Limbaugh backs wallet-based free speech

Rush Limbaugh's so-called "slutgate" brouhaha reminds me of a scene in Kenneth Lonergan's great film "Margaret." After a heated classroom argument about 9/11, a student says: "I think this whole class should apologize to Angie because all she did was express her opinion about what her relatives in Syria think about the fact that we bombed the shit out of a practically medieval culture... and everybody started screaming at her like she was defending the Ku Klux Klan!" Whereupon, one of the teachers says that jumping down someone's throat when you disagree with them is "censorship." Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) goes ballistic: "This class is not the government!"

Lisa's point is significant -- and it's one of the movie's many sharp insights into how Americans argue. We have a hard time separating our personal feelings from the legal system, a conflict that's goes to the core of Lisa's moral dilemma. (And for some reason we think it's a rational defense to say that someone else did something just as bad but didn't get punished for it as much.) The classroom of teenagers, reacting spontaneously and having a free discussion (even if it became raucous and uncivil) was not an attempt to prevent, modify or control the expression of Angie's ideas, but an attempt (by some, at least) to refute them. And while censorship isn't limited to government, church, commercial or social repression, the phrase "freedom of speech" (as outlined in the First Amendment) applies to government restrictions on what "the people" can say.

Yet some people (like Sarah Palin, whom you may remember as a nonfiction character played by Julianne Moore in the recent HBO movie "Game Change") claim that because Rush Limbaugh has been criticized for what he said (nobody censored him -- he said what he wanted to say), and because those who are outraged by what he said are petitioning his advertisers to drop their sponsorship of his show, his "free speech rights" are somehow being trampled. Palin said this on CNN:

"I think the definition of hypocrisy is for Rush Limbaugh to have been called out, forced to apologize and retract what it is that he said in exercising his First Amendment rights and never is that the same applied to the leftist radicals who say such horrible things about the handicapped, about women, about the defenseless."

So, what bothers her is not what he said, but that he was pressured to apologize for it when others have said things she thinks are just as bad have not been subjected to similar reprimands. OK. To me that sounds like the logic of a four-year-old ("It's not fair! Billy did it too!"), but we don't expect Palin to function as an adult. By all means, call out the left for double standards or "hypocrisy," and let's name names: (Who are those "leftist radicals" -- I want names! -- and exactly what horrible things have they said about "the handicapped, about women, about the defenseless"?) Just don't claim that nobody on the right or left took Bill Maher to task for his sexist vulgarities. And you could stand to learn something about the Constitution, too.

That, you see, is the thing that the First Amendment amends. It's Number One in a batch of ten that are commonly known as the "Bill of Rights" -- almost all of which are designed to enumerate those rights by placing limits on the powers of the federal government!

The very first one goes something like this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. [emphasis mine]

In fact, it goes exactly like that. Congress has made no law to abridge Rush Limbaugh's freedom of speech, so it has not been violated. Freedom of speech in the Constitution isn't about saying what you want to say. It's about protecting what you don't want someone else to say. It's why people can say things that "aren't P.C." or even spew the most vile "hate speech" and not get arrested and sentenced to prison (unlike many other countries, where anything from racist speech to blasphemy to Holocaust denial may be prosecutable offenses. The First Amendment is why the American Nazis were able to march in Skokie, and why the Westboro Baptist Church has the legal right to picket gay pride demonstrations ("God Hates Fags") and funerals of American soldiers who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan ("Pray For More Dead Soldiers," "Thank God for 9/11").

But I don't think this whole thing is about Rush Limbaugh's free speech rights or anyone else's. Unless, perhaps, another recent Supreme Court decision is actually more relevant here.

In the 2010 case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the court found that the spending of money is a form of constitutionally protected speech, and that the government had no right to limit campaign spending by corporations and unions.

So, spending money on advertising is a protected form of speech and corporations have the same free speech rights under the First Amendment as individuals. In which case, it makes sense that corporations who don't wish to be associated with Limbaugh's kind of (political, protected) speech also have the right to disassociate themselves from him. Maybe he doesn't convey the kind of message they want to send their customers, or he's not the kind of figure they want to associate with their company or their products. If Limbaugh and Clear Channel and other corporations speak with their bank accounts, why should other companies speak with their ad budgets? And why shouldn't consumers speak with their wallets when it comes down to buying the things advertised on Limbaugh's show? That's one way to hold everyone accountable for what they say and the values they endorse with their money. (For decades Limbaugh has made racial, sexual and other slurs that are much, much worse than this latest one, but for some reason this one struck a nerve -- perhaps because the woman he insulted wasn't a professional politician or entertainer like, say, Palin or Michael J. Fox.)

Limbaugh himself endorses the boycotting of products and advertisers as a form of political free speech. Here's a partial transcript from Limbaugh's own show, April 21, 2010:

[CALLER:] ... [If] I buy a GM or Chevy now, is that the same as making a campaign contribution to Barack Obama?

RUSH: Hmm. Hmm. Hmm.

CALLER: The money is directly going to the unions who only support Democrats.

RUSH: I'd have to say that you're right. I have to say that buying a General Motors or Chrysler car is a campaign donation in kind.

CALLER: Can we go one step further? Because Bill Maher has ripped the shred out of tea partiers and conservatives. If I watch HBO and give them money, am I doing the same thing?

RUSH: Yes, essentially. Essentially you are because HBO is a subscriber supported channel, not ad supported.

CALLER: What about Oprah and her advertisers?

RUSH: Same thing, probably, yes.

CALLER: So, okay, I have a lot of work to do and I appreciate it, Rush. You know, people keep saying we can't do anything, we can. We can stop buying their products.

RUSH: Excellent point. Glad you called. Thanks very much out there, Alan.

Of course, in this latest "mouth dump" (Jon Stewart's term), boycotts weren't even necessary. Advertisers were embarrassed (and some were disgusted) to financially support (and thus endorse) what Limbaugh said -- and, especially, to be held publicly accountable for it. ProFlowers, for example, released a statement saying that Limbaugh's name-calling "went beyond political discourse to a personal attack and do not reflect our values as a company." (Meanwhile, Peter Gabriel was horrified to hear Limbaugh use an excerpt from "Sledgehammer" as background music during his slut rant.)

While Limbaugh is unabashedly political (that's always been his schtick), he also likes to say that he's "an entertainer." He may be disingenuous about that sometimes (like when he gives the keynote speech at the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference) but even though it's considered imperative for conservatives in government pay obeisance by appearing on his show, Limbaugh is paid for his syndicated show and has never been elected to public office, so he's not a professional politician.

But as Jon Stewart points out (he and Colbert, as professional political comedians, have been superb on this subject; just watch the embedded clips here), there are repercussions for what comedians and entertainers say: ask Michael Richards; ask Tracy Morgan... What matters when entertainers say things that are vile and not funny is what kind of laughs they thought they were going for when they said them. I don't know where Richards or Morgan were going with their rants, but Limbaugh's really felt like a rehearsed bit, building to that oh-so-hilarious "punchline" about requiring women who have their birth control paid for by their insurance premiums to post amateur porn videos of themselves on YouTube every time they have sex. I believe Limbaugh thought that was funny -- clever, even, for him. And there might have been a joke there, though not in the way he framed or delivered it. He just made it ugly and hateful -- two forms of speech that, let us remember, are perfectly legal and fully protected by the First Amendment.

What I find more troubling than Entertainers Gone Wild are figures like Greta Van Susteren who pose as "reporters" and then become all palsy-walsy with the public figures they're supposedly reporting on, like Sarah Palin. (Why do the same names keep coming up over and over?) Van Susteren, who hosted the Palins on the charity/cocktail party circuit for last year's White House Correspondents Dinner, called comedian Louis C.K. a "pig" for his hideous DWT (Drunk While Tweeting) remarks about Palin and urged a boycott of this year's Congressional Correspondents' Dinner, where he had been invited to speak. So, he cancelled, causing some to ask if Van Susteren had "bullied" Louis C.K. Were Van Susteren's remarks about Luois C.K. supposed to be some kind of a kind of non sequitur bizarro world non-defense of Limbaugh? I really don't know. But some find the comparison of Limbaugh to a not-primarily-political comedian like Louis C.K. to be a "false equivalency."

A better comparison -- though also a misleading one -- is to the political entertainment of Bill Maher, who has also used derogatory language that specifically targets women, although he insists "I'm a pottymouth, not a misogynist." More significantly, Maher's HBO TV show is just part of what he does -- he also travels around the country doing stand-up for paying audiences; Limbaugh does a three-hour weekday radio call-in show. Both men present politics primarily as "entertainment," but they aren't the same. They do have similar views on vaccines, though.

In an interview with Jake Tapper at ABC News, Maher says this of his use of "c*nt" to describe Sarah Palin:

To compare that to Rush is ridiculous -- he went after a civilian about very specific behavior, that was a lie, speaking for a party that has systematically gone after women's rights all year, on the public airwaves. I used a rude word about a public figure who gives as good as she gets, who's called people "terrorist" and "unAmerican." Sarah Barracuda. The First Amendment was specifically designed for citizens to insult politicians. Libel laws were written to protect law students speaking out on political issues from getting called whores by Oxycontin addicts. [...]

In general, this is an obvious right wing attempt to dredge up some old sh*t about me to deflect from their self-inflicted problems. They are the kings of false equivalencies.

And through it all, I have defended Rush's right to stay on the air! Not what he said, that was disgusting -- but the right to not disappear because people who don't even listen to you don't like what you said. That really bothers me. I never hear Rush Limbaugh unless a guy in the next truck at a stop light has it on; it would be arrogant for me to say "he has to disappear" and deprive the people who do listen to him of what they like.

Of course, nobody has a "right" to remain on the air (no matter what Palin and Dr. Laura Schlessinger may say). Nobody has a right to a radio show. Nobody has a right to say whatever they want without facing free-speech consequences. And nobody has to publish or broadcast everything an employee or anyone else writes or says. As for the law student Limbaugh labeled a "slut" and a "prostitute, " she spoke to a congressional committee so there's some question as to whether she would be considered a "public figure" under defamation laws.

What it comes back to, again, is not so much an issue of "free speech" rights, but of money. The list of pundits and performers who've lost their jobs for saying idiotic, irresponsible, despicable things is endless. Limbaugh makes too much money for himself and too many others to lose his job, or his following, over this -- or, probably, anything else he could possibly say that he hasn't already. That's entertainment, right?


NOTE: Ronald Reagan was an avowed Limbaugh fan, but the image above is a composite I found on a pro-Limbaugh web forum.

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