Of the writings of French philosopher, playwright, and poet Voltaire, one of his most notable pronouncements was “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” This statement not only embodies but undergirds one of our most precious liberties, as guaranteed in the First Amendment of our U.S. Constitution—the right to free speech. Because this freedom is so priceless—integral to the ethos of our American democracy—our judicial system scrutinizes every case in which this liberty is challenged. As a result, the courts seldom decide in favor of cases that deviate from this principle, some exceptions being proven instances of slander and libel, and those where harm can result—such as falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.
Although I am a firm believer in our right to free speech, there are many times, nonetheless, I can only wish that—as individuals and as a society—we were more self-regulated, employing discretion rather than proffering needless derogatory, inflammatory, hateful, ugly and tasteless comments, flaunting unfounded claims based on utter distortion. I find this sort of language even more objectionable, and even irresponsible, when broadcast across the airwaves.
Those airwaves are also precious, as they are not only public, but limited in number and accessibility. Only a few years ago, broadcasters were held accountable for the content originating from their respective stations. When a controversial point of view was aired, the Fairness Doctrine required television and radio stations to provide an opportunity for an opposing point of view to be broadcast, free of charge. In my view, I sometimes find it regrettable that the Fairness Doctrine is no more. Without it, we have a no holds barred policy, which allows the nastiest, vitriolic commentary imaginable—all in the form of personal opinion—substantiated or not.
During incendiary broadcasts last week, Mr. Rush Limbaugh aspired to humiliate and denigrate Ms. Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown Law student, who—previously in a press conference—rationally expressed her views regarding women’s right to contraception as a provision of insurance coverage. Referring to her as a “slut” and a “prostitute” who was “having so much sex” that she couldn’t afford contraceptives, Limbaugh continued his diatribe the following day with his contorted logic that "if we're going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch."
Undoubtedly, we should continue to hold dear our right to freedom of expression, in spite of Mr. Limbaugh’s irrational and often mendacious outbursts, for which he is paid roughly forty million dollars a year. (Although he subsequently apologized, I leave it to the public to determine the sincerity of his recantation.)
Fortunately, we have the freedom to choose, switching channels in order to hear thoughtful, decent, and dignified commentary. Advertisers—that generally support programming based on audience size and demographics—can also elect to extend or withdraw their sponsorship, in an effort to promote and/or protect their brand image. Clearly, Mr. Limbaugh’s arguments were not only irresponsible but daftly absurd. Of course, we all remember what Voltaire had to say about that: “Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.”