Some people think that by criticizing Rush Limbaugh, and saying he shouldn’t be on the radio because of his crude and insulting comments, that free speech rights are under attack. This is silly and it confuses the issue of the right to speak freely with the right to be heard.
Limbaugh is an American citizen. He has the same rights of free speech that any of us has, the same as an Occupy protester or a homeless man in an alley in San Francisco. His rights are the same, no more, no less.
Does that, in turn, give him the right to a radio program on 600 stations? No. Nor does it mean that we, any of us, has to listen to him to prove that we are open to his “ideas” and insistent Republican propaganda.
People get forums on radio, television and cable channels because they are trained, have something to say and know how to do so in a way that will, one, appeal to a wide audience and, two, represent some (more or less) constructive engagement in matters of public dialog. When they demonstrate, by whatever means, that they have lost these abilities or have made a determination that they will not use them, they are gone. Often over night. Limbaugh long ago decided that he did not want to expand or enlighten, but that he wanted to propagandize for a particular political point of view. Okay, that’s not “illegal”, is it? In and of itself, no.
When he turns that open hose, propagandizing mouth on people who cannot fight back, and does so in a vicious, rude and insulting manner, he has lost any right to be heard further by anyone other than a dedicated audience that would gather in his living room in Florida and hear him out. On top of this, Limbaugh has put himself in a special class: he is the Radio Chairman of the Republican Party. He has more power than any other chairman of the party ever had, with the possible exception of a sitting president.
His status as the virtual leader of the Republican party creates a huge problem, first, for the Republicans, because what he says is taken by millions of people as the developing Republican doctrine. Second, it creates problems for the radio stations that carry his show. Would they give three hours a day to the actual chairman of the Republicans, no matter how popular? Would they give three hours to the head of the Democratic party? Of course not. Limbaugh sneaked in by the side door, spoke for the far right and, after a few years, announced himself to be in and off the Republicans. He speaks at their events, his prays for their total victory across America.
Quite aside from his crude insults, Limbaugh should be taken off the air for his blatant political stance alone. As a rule, we don’t quietly allow one party to have an enormous advantage over another. When stark imbalances are brought to public attention, efforts are generally made to move matters closer to being equal. It often doesn’t work (like the Campaign Finance Commission), but at least an effort is made.
The argument against political hacks having full time radio shows is entangled further by the fact that the radio airwaves Limbaugh’s stations use belong to all of us. Why should one political party have such an obvious advantage over another? This is a complicated issue, because if it rests mainly on the matter of public ownership of the airwaves, it could be used to try to put us back into the 1940s and ‘50s where, for the most part, radio was bland and generally carried only “official” news. The public ownership issue cannot be dismissed entirely, however, because it is a basic fact of broadcasting in the US. (If Limbaugh were on cable exclusively, this would not come into play.)
As for the fundamentals of free speech, Limbaugh has a right to speak, but he has no more right to a national radio forum than any other of the 250 million plus adult Americans. He earned his show by being provocative, “entertaining”, occasionally racist, always dramatic and by always finding new controversy to blow up into a grand, liberal conspiracy against America and Americans. His has shown himself to be a bully, a verbal pornographer (by talking of people lining up for sex with the law student and asking for video tapes of the supposed encounters) and an owner of a crude mouth used against ordinary citizens. He has lost his right to be heard, because he has lost his balance, if he ever had any.
Doug Terry, 3.23.12