It’s pretty rare that a single idiot spawns two whole posts on this blog, but Rush Limbaugh has done it.
As journalists and bloggers continue to debate the fallout of Limbaugh’s calling a female law student a slut and a prostitute on his show, I’ve noticed one particular phrase coming up again and again in these discussions. That phrase, of course, is “free speech.”
For every five online comments I see that demand for Limbaugh’s show to go off the air, there’s at least one that goes something like this: “Limbaugh is an idiot and I don’t listen to his show, but seriously, what happened to free speech?” (Examples: here, here, really any thread that discusses this incident.)
Occasionally, even the mere suggestion that his comments were inappropriate garners this rhetorical question.
The non-rhetorical answer is that absolutely nothing has happened to free speech. Although there are certainly some liberals who seek to limit it, the vast majority seek only to convince people that they shouldn’t be assholes. I’m looking at you, Limbaugh.
I’m not a constitutional scholar or even a political science major, so feel free to take my opinions on this issue with a grain of salt, but I think that what far-right conservatives are referring to when they say “free speech” is very different from what moderates, liberals, and, yes, the Founding Fathers meant by it.
First of all, the right to free speech–and the rest of the First Amendment rights–constitutes a restriction on the government, not on private individuals or institutions. For instance, here are some things the government cannot do in the United States:
- order a newspaper not to publish a piece that portrays the administration in a negative light
- forbid individuals from forming a new political party
- pass a law making it illegal to utter a racist slur
- criminalize the production, sale, and/or possession of pornography
- ban a violent film from being produced or screened
In certain cases, of course, the government can make some restrictions on free speech in order to keep people safe–a practice that many Libertarians consider unconstitutional, showing how differently the Constitution can be interpreted by different people. However, for now, that remains an acceptable use of the government’s powers. For instance, the government can ban:
- the production, sale, and possession of child pornography
- yelling “fire” in a crowded theater (incidentally, why is the example always a theater? It can be any crowded room.)
- revealing classified military information
- publishing libel
- minors from buying pornography, cigarettes, alcohol, or lottery tickets
However, as I said, First Amendment rights pertain to actions by the government, not by individuals or businesses. Here are some things that are NOT in violation of free speech that many conservatives seem to think are:
- a company firing an employee who has brought it negative attention
- a newspaper or radio channel choosing not to syndicate a column or show anymore because it does not fit with the outlet’s purpose or philosophy
- an advertiser pulling its ads from an outlet with which it no longer wants to do business
- a group of consumers starting a petition asking for any of the above to happen
Limbaugh’s fans would do well to note that these things are not violations of free speech. They’re capitalism at work. If consumers show that they no longer want to support a company that does business with such a cretin, then these companies are entitled to do what it takes to preserve their customers’ loyalty.
And another thing that isn’t a violation of free speech: telling someone that they’re an idiot and should shut up. If Limbaugh has the right to spew his idiocy into the public sphere, the rest of us have the right to label it as such.
And really–now I might be getting too off-topic–these conservatives who are so desperate to ensure that Limbaugh’s liberty goes unrestrained might want to focus instead on the very real, very flagrant abuses of individual rights that the U.S. government actually does perpetrate.
But strangely, these are often the very abuses that Limbaugh and his ilk support.
Funny how that works.