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Issue 1508 July 29, 2012
(Prior Story)   Columns ArTicle 6819   (Next Story)

Limits of Free Speech Under Severe Test With Limbaugh, O'Reilly Rants

March 4, 2012       2 Comments
By: Dave Rogers

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Freedom of speech is enshrined in the United States Constitution that is part of the Bill of Rights.

The First Amendment prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.

The recent brouhaha over the comments of radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, basically echoed by television commentator Bill O'Reilly, are so inflammatory as to threaten our treasured freedom of speech.

Reactionaries say they are justified in suppressing Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. O'Reilly because their comments were offensive to women in general, and one woman -- a Georgetown University law student -- in particular.

Were the comments by Limbaugh and O'Reilly slander? The law student no doubt will test that in court. But the bigger question remains: will we as a nation continue to tolerate the kind of speech that has always been decried as "crying fire in a crowded theater?"

Because of the policy of limitless attack speech we have become so polarized as a nation that almost no reasonable decision can be reached even on topics that are vital to the life and livelihood of our republic. A nation priding itself of being people of good will finds those types almost impossible to find even in crisis.

A new field of creative endeavor seems to have emerged wherein commentators in the public arena like Limbaugh, O'Reilly and Anne Coulter have grabbed the public eye, and the pocketbooks, of easily enticed listeners prone to judgmental and prejudicial opinions. It is the American way, after all.

All this is the result of the 1988 governmental decision to divest the public arena of any controls -- deregulation if you will -- over speech on the airways.

The so-called Fairness Doctrine, that mandated equal time for opposing viewpoints and which had stood for decades, was scrapped. That allowed ideologues with limitless funds to command the majority of the airwaves of the nation with mainly reactionary sentiment like that perpetrated by Limbaugh, et al.

The airwaves, radio and television, are limited by technological considerations: there are only so many channels and so much band width. So the broadcast communications market is a finite one, not unlimited like print, and is under purview of the Federal Communications Commission for that reason.

Buy up all, or most, of the airwaves and you have an unassailable advantage in reaching vast numbers of voters who may not be sophisticated enough to realize they are being snowed under.

However, control of the continued outrages by talk show hosts who make a startlingly good living by doing just that -- outraging listeners -- is not solely the job of government, in our view.

What about the guardians of civil discourse, the churches, the public arbiters of good judgement, the posturing solons in Washington who pretend to be concerned about civility and public decorum? Are we to degenerate into a banana republic or a middle-eastern haven for maniacal zealots?

This is, after all, America, where we cherish freedom of speech, religion, etc. But perhaps we need to re-examine at this point, nearly quarter of a century after the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, whether we have gotten what we bargained for. Have we preserved free speech in view of the fact that deep pocketed ideologues can foist their often demented ideas on everyone? Think the Koch brothers and the Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court allowing them to in effect buy any election without controls and in some cases without disclosure.

Apparently we have gone from government mandates to carefully balance any statements considered too political on the airwaves with the opposing sentiment to the untrammeled right to say a woman is a slut and prostitute for testifying about the need for contraception -- obviously a highly politically charged viewpoint.

Almost everyone viewing this situation seems to agree, even Limbaugh himself, that it has gone too far.

The key question remains: is it free speech if plutocrats (definition, rule by the rich) can commandeer most of the airwaves in their own interest? Are corporations people? is another pertinent consideration.

The great American principle of free enterprise seems to be asserting itself in this recent instance; advertisers are fleeing what seems to be unreasonable attacks on a woman and women in general. Unless the deep-pocketed Koch brothers and other ideologues come up with the big bucks to replace those of fleeing advertisers, perhaps the ship of freedom will right itself.

After all, that seems to be the American way, doesn't it? The marketplace rules.

What do you think?

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"The BUZZ" - Read Feedback From Readers!

Geraldine42 Says:       On March 05, 2012 at 01:21 PM
My God, Dave, How long is it going to take for people to decide that the decision to allow companies, foreign entities or even religions to pour money into our elections is O.K.!? We need a limit to what anyone from the Presidential candidates on down can spend on an election. $1.98 come to mind for me.
Agree? or Disagree?

Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at

More from Dave Rogers

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