You’ve almost certainly heard about the Rush Limbuagh kerfuffle, in which the talk radio personality spent several days excoriating law student Sandra Fluke for testifying on Capitol Hill about employer-paid health insurance and contraception, and called her (among many, many other things) a “slut” and a “prostitute.” You may not yet have head that the well-known feminist lawyer Gloria Allred has requested that Limbaugh be prosecuted — for violating an obscure Florida statute, stating that anyone who “speaks of and concerning any woman, married or unmarried, falsely and maliciously imputing to her a want of chastity” is guilty of a first degree misdemeanor.
My response to Allred: You have got to be fucking kidding me.
This is a bad idea from just about every angle I look at it. It’s a bad idea legally. It’s a bad idea politically/ pragmatically. It’s a bad idea from a feminist perspective. It’s a bad idea from a sexual politics perspective. And it’s a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea morally.
It’s a bad idea legally because it’s a gross violation of the First Amendment. If it doesn’t get smacked down like a bad, bad dog by every court it encounters, I will be very surprised indeed.
It’s a bad idea politically/ pragmatically because it will be seen by the right, and by opponents of feminism, as a hypocritical attempt to silence free speech simply because someone doesn’t like the content. Hell, I see it that way. And I’m a left-wing feminist.
It’s a bad idea from a feminist perspective because it furthers the notion that, in the rough-and-tumble of the marketplace of ideas, women are shrinking violets who can dish it out but can’t take it.
It’s a bad idea from a sexual politics perspective because it furthers the notion that calling a woman’s chastity called into question is an especially terrible crime, worthy of its own statute. And that is bullshit on sixteen different levels. The very fact that this statute makes it a crime specifically to impugne a woman’s chastity, and says nothing of a man’s chastity, should have been a red flag to Allred. She should be campaigning against this statute’s very existence. The idea of a feminist lawyer calling for this law to be enforced makes my skin crawl.
And it’s a bad idea morally because we don’t silence free speech simply because we don’t like its content. Period. As I wrote in my defense of the recent Supreme Court decision about Fred Phelps: The First Amendment, and the right to the free expression of political ideas, is one of most crucial cornerstones of our democracy. We should not be looking for loopholes in it. Our default assumption should always, always, always be that speech should be free, unless there is a tremendously compelling reason to limit it.
If Sandra Fluke genuinely thinks that her reputation and character were defamed by Rush Limbaugh, she should sue him for libel. (I think it’s unlikely that she’d win — she made herself into a public figure when she testified before Congress, and the libels laws about public figures are looser than they are about private citizens — but IANAL, and I don’t know enough about libel laws to say for sure.) But the fact that this law about impugning a woman’s chastity is still on the books? It’s a joke at best and a travesty at worst. And it is beneath Allred, or anyone who genuinely cares about law and the guiding principles behind it, to attempt to use it just to hurt someone we don’t like.
Explaining her call for Limbaugh’s prosecution on this “impugning a woman’s chastity” statute, Allred said: “He needs to face the consequences of his conduct in every way that is meaningful.” I agree. But this is not meaningful. This is meaningless. This is laughable. This is absurd on every level. It is beneath us.