If the respect for free speech erodes, theirs will be the first to go. The number of folks in this country who would rather shut up GLAAD far exceeds the number of folks who want to shut up Laura Schlessinger.
—Harvey Silverglate, civil rights and civil liberties lawyer and a board member of the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union, quoted in Scot Lehigh’s You Don’t Say, The Boston Globe, June 4
The campaign to silence Dr. Laura is gaining. According to The Boston Globe, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) “has led the charge to pressure WCVB-TV not to air” Dr. Laura’s fall TV show. And the June 2 New York Blade reports:
“According to GLAAD, San Francisco’s KPIX-TV’s management has stated publicly it will not allow defamatory material [on her show] to air, and Philadelphia’s KYW-TV says it will screen Schlessinger’s show for antigay content before each program airs.”
The ACLU can’t go to court to make a First Amendment case against this kind of censorship because it’s not initiated by the government. Screening Dr. Laura’s speech is a seductive idea that could catch on with other station managements. Not only to control what’s said by controversial talk-show hosts, whose programs are taped for later broadcast in other cities, but also to delete offensive comments from guests on those shows.
In Canada, Dr. Laura has already been placed under strict scrutiny. The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council is not a government agency. It’s an independent group created by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters. A May 11 Associated Press report from Ottawa notes that the council has charged Dr. Laura with “abusively discriminatory” comments about gays and lesbians on her radio show.
Therefore, says the council, she has violated “the human rights provision of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ code of ethics.”
Accordingly, the AP story adds, “Canadian networks that broadcast the syndicated show must make a public announcement about the council ruling during prime-time hours. Her program is believed to reach almost 1 million Canadians.” Her estimated American audience is about 18 million.
There’s more to Canada’s selective gag order on Dr. Laura. The May 12 New York Times notes: “Canadian stations that broadcast taped versions of the call-in show are expected to excise antigay commentary beforehand.”
Canada is not bereft of free-speech advocates, but they have actually been told by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council: “In Canada, we respect freedom of speech, but do not worship it.” But in America, James Madison—the author of the Bill of Rights—said firmly: “Opinions are not the subject of legislation.” Nor should they be the subject of nongovernmental suppression of speech.
The Madisonian standard—continually scorned by the right, the left, racists, homophobes, Christian fundamentalists, and now by GLAAD—was stated by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (and enthusiastically quoted in my book The First Freedom: The Tumultuous History of Free Speech in America):
“If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought—not free thought only for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought we hate.”
I recently spoke with Joan Garry, the impressively direct executive director of GLAAD, and she told me that if Paramount Television—the producer and syndicator of the fall television series debut of Dr. Laura—does not cancel the show as potential sponsors are driven off, GLAAD will continue to demand that Paramount make a commitment to stop her from saying defamatory things about gays and lesbians on that show.
“If Paramount does not make that commitment,” Joan Garry said, “she should not be allowed on the air.”
I respect Garry’s candor, especially since some of those pressuring sponsors and Paramount say that they are only engaging in a boycott, which itself—and I agree—is a form of speech. But if the boycott doesn’t work, they are determined to find other ways to keep her off television.
Joan Garry, however, honestly makes GLAAD’s intention plain.
There is another gay civil rights activist with whom I speak frequently. His name is Bill Dobbs, and he was quoted in the June 2 New York Blade:
“Ridicule her, protest against her, turn her into a Saturday Night Live skit. But by campaigning to cancel the show, we can no longer complain when it’s done to us. . . . It’s a plain old censorship campaign, no matter what you call it.”
Also in the June 2 New York Blade, Ann Northrop—one of the orchestrators of the June 5 protest outside WCBS-TV in Manhattan against the Dr. Laura television show—declared:
“I am thrilled that this is building on a grassroots basis—that it’s occurring in many places. I think this is a rolling-along event.”
I remind her, Joan Garry, and all those who want to silence Dr. Laura of the long, brutalizing history of American grassroots “rolling-along” campaigns against the free-speech rights of blacks, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, Jews, radicals, Muslims, socialists, feminists, Americans who spoke German during the First World War, immigrants, Native Americans, gays and lesbians, antiwar demonstrators, et al.
“If large numbers of people believe in freedom of speech,” said George Orwell, “there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it. But if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.”
There are always “inconvenient minorities” among us.