The debate over gay rights—rights. RIGHTS! RIGHTS? For sexual deviant, sexual behavior there are now rights?
—Dr. Laura Schlessinger, June 9, 1999, on her syndicated radio show
Do we really need a show that teaches kids that some people are inferior to others? That isn’t just bad television, it’s un-American.
—John Aravosis, a lawyer and spokesman for StopDrLaura.com, New York Post, March 16
The companies that have withdrawn their advertising because of Dr. Schlessinger’s descriptions of homosexuality as “deviant” should be “rewarded” in kind—that is, all of us ought to withdraw our commercial support of them by refusing to buy their products.
—Perry J. Shertz, letters, The New York Times, May 24
Some gays and lesbians are working hard to get Dr. Laura’s forthcoming television series—produced and syndicated by Paramount Television—canceled, or stripped of sponsors. Others—like Andrew Sullivan and Bill Dobbs, persistent advocates of gay rights—point out that attempts to suppress hateful speech and ideas can backfire on the attackers and endanger their own free-speech rights.
But pressuring advertisers can be very effective. A popular CBS-TV series, Lou Grant, about a fearless newspaper editor, was taken off the air because right-wing organizations conducted an intensive boycott of the main sponsor’s products on the ground that the star, Ed Asner, was an unabashed supporter of left-wing causes.
During Joe McCarthy’s reign, boycotts by groups such as Red Channels forced many actors, writers, and directors off the air, Pete Seeger and Zero Mostel among them. David Susskind, a prominent producer in those years, had to drop an eight-year-old girl from a television program because Aware Inc.—”professional consultants on the Communist Front records of people working in the entertainment industry”—ruled that the child’s father was suspected of Red ties.
More recently, Joseph Fernandez felt it necessary to resign as chancellor of this city’s school system because many parents fiercely objected to his advocacy of a “rainbow curriculum,” which included books on same-sex parents.
Dr. Laura’s series is set to premiere on September 11, and already, Procter & Gamble—described in the May 17 Daily News as “the world’s biggest advertiser for household products”—is not only leaving the TV show but is also removing its ads from her radio program, which is heard on more than 400 stations, including WABC in New York.
On June 2, the New York Blade reported that Xerox and Toys ‘R’ Us will stop advertising on her radio show, and according to the May 19 New York Times, United Airlines will no longer place any ads for her radio show in its in-flight magazine. In the May 25 Variety, there is news that AT&T and American Express may spurn Dr. Laura’s television series.
Boycotting is a form of speech, with a long tradition in American history, but suppressing speech destroys the most fundamental rights we all share.
I’ve had experience with attempts to shut me up because of my dangerous ideas. For example, I spoke at a lot of colleges against the Vietnam War and the FBI’s infiltration of both the antiwar and civil rights movements. On October 14, 1970, Richard Ichord, chairman of the House Internal Security Committee, included me in a list of 65 “radical” campus speakers giving “inflammatory speeches to large audiences . . . promoting violence and encouraging the destruction of our systems of government.”
His informants neglected to tell Ichord that I was a pacifist. As right-wingers circulated his list of un-Americans, my college gigs diminished considerably, from some 35 a year to three or four. They picked up some in the 1980s—until I declared in this newspaper that as a Jewish, atheist civil libertarian who could read biology texts, I had become a pro-lifer.
There aren’t many pro-lifers on college campuses, and the students who select visiting speakers are vigorously pro-choice—except when it comes to presenting a diversity of ideas.
During the last 12 years or so, I’ve averaged no more than two or three college speaking dates a year. One college, which turned me down because of my abortion views after first inviting me, asked me to come back the next year to talk about my writings in the Voice against censorship.
It is not inconceivable—considering the growing strength of the gay and lesbian communities, politically and expressively—that sooner rather than later, a forcefully articulate spokesperson for gay rights will have a broadcast or cable-network talk show—with sponsors. The gay market for a wide variety of products is an attractive one.
When this happens, I have no doubt that a coalition of fundamentalist religious and other dedicated conservative organizations will bring intense pressure on actual and potential sponsors to get the show off the air. I will protest that suppression, and gay groups will speak eloquently of the American tradition of free speech. But those conducting a jihad against that network’s gay talk show will chortle and say to them, “But that’s just what you did to Dr. Laura!”
As I said, I believe boycotts are protected speech. But in the late 1970s, gay groups and others were trying to get singer Anita Bryant fired as a spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Commission at the same time that they were boycotting Florida orange juice. Ira Glasser, then executive director of the New York ACLU (now head of the national ACLU), said:
“Anita Bryant has taken certain public positions, and certain people who disagree with those positions are trying to punish her economically. This is exactly what happened during the McCarthy years. I see no difference between blacklisting people then through Red Channels and blacklisting Anita Bryant.”
The aim now is to go beyond economic punishment, which I believe is protected speech, and silence Dr. Laura. Next week: There are somber, unintended consequences.