‘Dr. Laura, Sarah Palin, and the fight over free speech’

Friday, August 20, 2010

In the wake of Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s decision to end her radio show after repeatedly using a racial epithet, she’s spent quite a bit of time talking about freedom of speech. “I want to regain my First Amendment rights,” Schlessinger said, contending that special-interest groups were limiting her freedom to express herself.

Sarah Palin jumped in and tweeted, “Dr.Laura: don’t retreat … reload! (Steps aside bc her 1st Amend.rights ceased 2exist thx 2activists trying 2silence”isn’t American,not fair”)”

That was soon followed by a second tweet:

“Dr.Laura=even more powerful & effective w/out the shackles,so watch out Constitutional obstructionists. And b thankful 4 her voice, America!)”

Have Dr. Laura’s rights been trampled? Are her critics undercutting the Constitution? The answer can be found in the First Amendment itself. Though Palin speaks frequently of the need to protect the Constitution and elect politicians who understand it, in this case she is misreading the amendment and how it works.

Here are five facts about Dr. Laura and the First Amendment:

  • The First Amendment protects us from the government, and not from other Americans who disagree with what we have to say. “Congress shall make no law” — the first five words of the First Amendment — say it all: No government body can limit our rights to speak out. In this case, there’s no government action, just public outrage and pressure.
  • Boycotts are also protected by the First Amendment. Dr. Laura complains about being “bullied” by those who might pressure her radio affiliates or advertisers, but boycotts are a time-honored use of the First Amendment to address perceived wrongs and have played a role in virtually every social movement in American history.
  • Efforts to punish controversial speech come from the right and the left. It’s true that liberal organizations are attacking Dr. Laura for use of the racial epithet, just as conservative organizations burned Dixie Chicks CDs when Natalie Maines told a London audience that she was embarrassed that President Bush came from Texas. Politicians and interest groups of all stripes consistently seek to limit the other side’s free speech.
  • The marketplace of ideas and the marketplace are different things. We tend to take a romantic view of a nation in which we’re all free to speak, which thereby enriches “the marketplace of ideas.” In the marketplace, however, economic rules apply. Controversial comments can be rewarded with a growing audience or punished by unsettled advertisers. Speech is free; airtime is not.
  • Dr. Laura’s First Amendment rights are alive and well. Although she’s leaving her radio show, she says she’ll continue to share her views through public speaking, TV interviews, in print, online, and in a new book due in January, all made possible by the First Amendment.