Imus, Coulter and the marketplace for offensive speech

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Don Imus was a cash cow.

That explains why it took several days (and a public outcry) before executives at NBC and CBS could bring themselves to punish Imus for his racially disparaging remarks about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team.

CBS Radio has now fired him, after first announcing he would be suspended for two weeks. NBC News earlier had dropped its simulcast of the Imus program on MSNBC.

Imus has apologized — repeatedly. But his fate was sealed this week when Staples, Procter & Gamble and other advertisers announced that they were taking their money elsewhere.

Imus has his defenders. Many of the big-name guests who frequent “Imus in the Morning” (from Sen. John McCain to Newsweek’s Evan Thomas) are eager for everyone to accept the apology and move on. Imus pushes the offensive-speech envelope with his humor, but he also talks about substantive issues — and gives media stars, politicians and authors a powerful platform.

But let's be honest: Offensive speech sells. Beginning with his days as a shock jock, Don Imus has a history of sexist, homophobic and racist bottom-feeding remarks that feed the bottom line. The same advertisers who are pulling their ads today have funded similar comments by Imus and his crew for years. And the same executives who feigned outrage when Imus said 'nappy-headed hos' are busy seeking the next flamethrower who can pump up their ratings.

This time, however, even past commercial success didn't save Imus. It will be hard for anyone who listened to the reactions of the Rutgers players to dismiss his jokes as “harmless.”

If Imus is occasionally offensive, Ann Coulter has built a lucrative career on saying whatever it takes to get attention — and she has yet to pay a financial price. Sure, a few newspapers (temporarily?) dropped her column after her so-called “joke” calling Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards a “faggot.” But that’s a small price to pay for the countless media appearances, bigger speaking fees, soaring book sales and other goodies that doubtless will come her way following all the publicity her remarks garnered.

Sadly, Imus and Coulter are emblematic of our uncivil times. In the Internet age, the impulse to offend apparently knows no bounds. People feel increasingly emboldened to say or write anything — however ugly, vulgar or downright hateful. From cyberbullies who harass classmates to anonymous bloggers who assault their “enemies,” the anything-goes Web world has raised the bar for what counts as “offensive speech” in America’s public square.

Here’s the danger: The messier the speech, the louder the clamor for government to clean up the mess. Almost as soon as Imus uttered the offending words, the Rev. Al Sharpton was pledging to take the issue to the Federal Communications Commission. Next thing you know, we’ll have congressional hearings on verbal malfunctions.

The only thing worse than an uncivil society is a society where government legislates what is civil.

If you want to see what the brave new world of controlled speech looks like, visit many of our public colleges and universities — places that are supposed to be bastions of free expression. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, more than 73% of public universities maintain unconstitutional speech codes, despite numerous federal court decisions striking down similar policies. Overall, 68% of colleges and universities surveyed, including private institutions, have policies that restrict freedom of speech.

If government isn’t the answer — and it isn’t — then what is? Are polluted airways and Internet sites simply the price we pay for free speech?

Not necessarily. On the very day that Imus was initially suspended, several key high-tech leaders (including book publisher Tom O’Reilly) proposed guidelines for promoting civil behavior among bloggers. Among other things, the proposed code of conduct recommends that bloggers consider banning anonymous comments and take responsibility for what appears on their own pages.

Getting 70 million bloggers to agree on anything is highly unlikely. But if a significant number of major sites adopted the proposed guidelines, a higher level of civil discourse might spread throughout the Web. That, in turn, could encourage more civility in other media.

Beyond self-policing, we should also prepare young people to use their speech responsibly tomorrow. Every school needs a comprehensive character-education initiative that helps students learn how to engage one another with civility and respect. And every school should require a unit in the ethical use of the Internet. Using freedom well — with responsibility — takes practice.

But the most immediate answer to highly offensive speech is simply to stop enabling it. Change the channel, boycott the sponsor, or go to another Web site. We should do everything we can to protect the First Amendment right of people to offend, but we don’t have to pay for it.

When you’re turned off, turn it off.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

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