Editor’s Note: In the wake of a barrage of sexist slurs against a law student who dared to testify in support of birth control access, Rush Limbaugh lost advertisers by the dozen. Then Women’s Media Center founders Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan called on the FCC to pull Limbaugh off the airwaves. Below, former Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt explains why she supports their campaign. In response, lawyer and author Wendy Kaminer writes that “whether or not Limbaugh’s biases are morally reprehensible, he has a fundamental moral as well as legal right to express them.” The second round of their debate appears immediately below; scroll down for Round One!
A Violation of the Public Trust
I couldn’t care less whether what Rush believes about women. But I do contend he does not have an absolute right to express that hate on the public spectrum.
by Gloria Feldt on March 21, 2012
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never harm me.” As kids, we yelled this retort. It’s as true about discourse on the public airwaves as on the playground, for the most part. Wendy Kaminer and I agree on that.
Kaminer also acknowledges legitimate limits on speech, whether or not the words may break our bones; she says: “[T]he Supreme Court has carved out categories of speech excluded from First Amendment protections, such as obscenity, libel, and incitement to violence.”
Hypothetical are easy, but let’s recall Limbaugh’s actual language. After he called Sandra Fluke the gendered slur, “slut,” after calling the 30-year-old law student a “prostitute,” he declared Fluke should post sex tapes of herself on the Internet in exchange for her birth control coverage. “Crude, sexist insults” seems a euphemism at best. When Kaminer charged that those advocating FCC action against Limbaugh believe “freedom of speech should be limited to speech that they like or only mildly dislike,” she lost sight of the incident’s real meaning. Limbaugh shouldn’t be taken off public airwaves because I dislike what he said. He should be taken off the airwaves for fomenting a culture of objectification and dehumanization that has tangible consequences for real women.
Kaminer’s assertion that even the most egregious sexist speech can’t be equated with incitement to violence brought me this reaction from Robin Morgan, one of the authors of the CNN.com op ed calling upon the FCC to investigate whether Limbaugh crossed the line into obscenity or incitement:
Oh, come on. Widely acknowledged studies on sexual assault [see RAINN.org, Rape, Abuse, and Incest Network] verify the concept of a ‘rape climate,’ responsible for 1) trackable escalation of sexual violence, 2) the most commonly cited reason men admit they rape (or would if they thought they wouldn’t be caught–i.e. ‘It’s nothing special, women always mean yes when saying no’), and 3) the most commonly cited reason women don’t report rape: ‘I was afraid they’d say I asked for it,’ e.g. silencing through blame-the-victim. To characterize women using birth control as voracious sluts feeds rape climate a feast.
Similarly, the National Hispanic Media Coalition documented in great detail how hate speech devolves into action, from anti-immigrant abuse to the Rwandan genocide; in the latter, radio was a powerful tool to legitimize killings “in language strikingly similar to that used by modern day American shock jocks”—not by telling people to kill, but by bombarding the airwaves with dehumanizing epithets.