Free Speech Is Real Loser In Rush Kerfuffle

The bad news in the Rush Limbaugh controversy is that while some people are recommending that the FCC take him off the air or think he should be prosecuted; 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. Looking beyond the campaign against Limbaugh, one can see that this and kindred efforts aren’t going to end well for freedom of speech.

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 organizations 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 Associated Press 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.” The use of the word “educate” in this context brings to mind the image of “reeducation camps,” and clearly establishes that Brock is up to his eyebrows in polemics.

Looking beyond the campaign against Limbaugh, one can see that this and kindred efforts aren’t going to 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. That’s 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.”

Also this month, liberal icon Michael Kinsley wrote a piece for Bloomberg titled “Case Against Case Against Rush Limbaugh.” Kinsley asks: “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 of interference by the government,” he says. “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 better world, one wouldn’t have to be a policy wonk or a constitutional scholar to understand how wise Kinsley is about this. But in this world, who knows?

Patrick Maines is president of The Media Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes free speech, sound communications policies and journalistic excellence. The views expressed above are his alone, and not those of The Media Institute, its board, contributors or advisory councils.

Comments (16)

Leave a Reply

Mark Gregory says:

March 26, 2012 at 9:32 am

There’s a reason they have remained silent; it’s not about freedom of speech, it’s about the fact that Rush is a cruel and ignorant person who has gotten away with his ugly speech for far too long. I don’t say take him off the air, but let his advertisers be aware that if they want to be associated with this scum of the earth, then the scum is going to rub off and they should be prepared for the consequences. As a marketer, I know that I need to place my messages where consumers will associate my product with the vehicle delivering that message and that is the main reason why sponsors are running for the hills; and they should.

Jason Crundwell says:

March 26, 2012 at 9:49 am

I think he’s largely misunderstood. Now, before you lambaste me, let me explain. Rush will admit he’s no news person or even a political commentator. He’s an entertainer. Whether you’re entertained by him or not is up for debate, but that’s his point. He shouldn’t necessarily be taken as seriously as Bob Schieffer or even Bill O’Reilly. He points out absurdity by being absurd. You actually have to listen to understand. Admittedly, I haven’t listened since the days of the “Rush rooms” in restaurants around the country, where his program was played to patrons. But that’s more because of my schedule than anything. I like him and find him very funny. And occasionally brilliant. Or insulting. He was a little outraged by someone insisting that birth control be paid for by taxpayers. He has a point, though his method was clumsy. But to suggest that the FCC or any other governmental agency even has the authority to remove him from the airwaves because of his opinions is laughable. Let the marketplace decide. He’ll either live and learn or he’s done. Let’s stop this nonsense about kicking him off the air-it ain’t gonna happen.

    Mark Gregory says:

    March 26, 2012 at 9:58 am

    I agree – let the marketplace decide, which was my point … and sponsors beware. I have listened to Rush as well. Obviously, I am not a fan and believe him to be an imbecile. I’m not happy about paying for the war in Iraq either but. unfortunately, that’s not my call. As a result of that objection to how my tax dollars are being spent, I don’t think it’s “brilliant” (to use your word) to call those who supported it whores. So, if advertisers want to be associated with that type of “brilliance”, I say go-for-it. I, and many consumers, will be watching.

Emily Gausman says:

March 26, 2012 at 10:35 am

Had Mr. Limbaugh’s forum been housed on Cable Television, Book, Magazine, Newspaper Op/Ed or other form of communication other than the “Public Airwaves” I would agree. Sadly for Mr Limbaugh it was not. Clear Channel Communications (CCU), it’s syndication arm Pyramid and the stations are subject to certain rules laid out by an admittedly tone down FCC (due to deregulation under both Reagan and Clinton). But they are still, the “Public Airwaves” and they are leased to CCU. Here is where Mr. Limbaugh has fallen off the rails, in my opinion; first he used Michael J. Fox to mock people with Parkinson’s disease, later he chose President Obama to spread his form of racism “Barack The Magic Negro”, then he chose Ms Fluke’s heart felt testimony to Congress to insist that she is a “slut” and a “prostitute”. He later urged her to video tape her private moments for him to view. Her testimony had more to do with Women’s Health and he chose to sexualize it to provide shock and rage among his audience.
Mr Limbaugh has a certain responsibility when he is given the opportunity to use “The Public Airwaves”. Mr. Maher, does not and nor does Fox News for that matter. Mr Limbaugh is a trustee, empowered by the FCC. He is a terrestrial broadcaster, not a cable pundit, not an Op/Ed writer, not a magazine… His feet should be held to the fire he chose to participate in. In being a terrestrial broadcaster, there are limits to one’s speech. He can not nor should not have it both ways.
Tim Schreier
New York, NY

Dave Zelio says:

March 26, 2012 at 11:09 am

Rush is not, in my opinion, just an entertainer. His rants carry a lot of weight with American conservatives. He cleverly follows the talking points of the the furthest right wing of the Republican party, and weaves them into his show. “Business is too restrained, socialism is at our doorstep, don’t surrender in Afghanistan, build up the military, lower taxes on the wealthy, etc.” Whatever he is talking about today will be repeated on Fox “News” tonight, check it out on O’Reilly, Hannity, et. al. I have no problem with advertisers patronizing his show, as long as they clearly understand what they are getting.

Ellen Samrock says:

March 26, 2012 at 12:10 pm

If you were to listen to the recordings of Lenny Bruce, the highly controversial issues he tackled and the outrageous observations he made about them, you have to wonder if the American public hasn’t actually regressed in its toleration of unpleasant speech since those times. We’ve somehow enabled the hyper-sensitive to control public discourse and suppress dissent instead of insisting that they grow up and learn to deal with it.

    Emily Gausman says:

    March 26, 2012 at 9:45 pm

    If standing up to racism, sexism and mocking the handicapped is hyper-sensitive, then call me the Hyperist Sensitive Person In The World! I will wear that proudly, if that is the barometer you wish to set.

    Tim Schreier NY NY

    Ellen Samrock says:

    March 27, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    Ahem. As I was saying…

B Beebe says:

March 26, 2012 at 12:32 pm

Did free free speech exist before radio was invented?
Having a radio show is not a requirement to having free speech.

sorry, I`m just not buying this line of thinking,that if rush doesn`t have a radio show then somehow his right to free speech is being denied him.


March 26, 2012 at 1:54 pm

Let’s see… Rush is supposed to get a pass and Janet Jackson…

Jason Crundwell says:

March 26, 2012 at 4:07 pm

You’re all right. Rush’s personal free speech rights are not infringed if he loses his radio show. I don’t have a show, yet I still have freedom of speech. So he certainly is held to a higher standard, as he should be. And his over the top behavior can be and often is annoying, no doubt. And he’s still personally responsible for what he says. But until he violates the law, he is free to keep his show as long as he’s financially successful for his employer. Until he violates the law, he really only needs to keep Clear Channel happy. Look, I feel you. There are folks in the media that drive me nuts, too. I decided not to listen to/watch them anymore. I think other people are coming to the same conclusion about Rush. How many do will determine whether he stays on the air or flips burgers (metaphorically).

Carl Schulman says:

March 26, 2012 at 5:52 pm

Screw Kinsely and his “say why and say it better” crap. That’s like saying if you bought a bad car, don’t complain to the dealer or the FTC, build a better one yourself. Limbaugh is the GM of right-wing loudmouths, and if he builds a lemon, he should lose money. God bless America!

April Davis says:

March 26, 2012 at 7:39 pm

Mains is plain wrong. This Rush problem is not about 1st amendment rights as the government is not involved… except through lack of antitrust enforcement, media consolidation, and favorable treatment by government (FCC) of some larger companies. The most important question today is how many independent voices can you actually hear on radio, see on TV, or even connect to via mobile and fixed internet. Hummm…. in my town except for net neutrality one company has a majority of internet, cable, and mobile phone subscribers. In commercial radio we have over 30 radio signals but acknowledging under the table deals, there are only 4 voices. How are content choices limited by consolidation? (e.g. CW+) How much of the advertising market do the few independent actors control? Too bad for American democracy that media outlets are regulated as if they are hardware stores.

    Emily Gausman says:

    March 26, 2012 at 9:36 pm

    The Tel-com Act of 1996 made this happen. It was a bi-partisan effort championed by Gingrich Congress and signed by Clinton. Ed Markey of MA was key to this… disaster of a bill… It laid out the duopolies, oligopolies and was just short of monopolies in communications. Money talked then too… Can’t wait to see what Citizens United will bring us in the future… ugh… Tim Schreier New York, NY

Greg Haynes says:

March 26, 2012 at 10:29 pm

I don’t think calling a college student a slut in the media is what Adams, Franklin and Jefferson had in mind when the right to free speech was authored. Being rude and crass is not a provision of free speech. Rush is a douche bag and will be treated like a douche bag.

More News