Bill Maher spent a significant portion of last Friday’s Real Time defending Rush Limbaugh. Well, not defending the man, whom he calls repulsive. And not defending Rush’s statements over the last few weeks, which he vehemently objected to on both political and rhetorical grounds. But Maher defended Rush’s right to say those things, invoking free speech and the ACLU, and in the process missed the point completely.
Maher proclaimed that efforts to pressure Rush Limbaugh’s sponsors amounted to an illegitimate attack on his freedom of speech, and that the advertiser campaign is an example of “the system being manipulated.”
Unsurprisingly, the right-wing press wasted no time in broadcasting triumphantly that even lefty pundits recognized that the real victim here was Rush.
Let’s get this clear: Rush is not a martyr for the cause of free speech. Nor have his First Amendment rights been violated in any way since the day he chose to call a Georgetown law student a “slut” for arguing that contraception should be covered by health insurance. For starters, violating Rush’s First Amendment rights would require state action. Rush has not been jailed for his views, nor has anyone even whispered a suggestion to that effect. There have been no calls for his radio transmitter to be jammed. No one is even demanding he be fined, which might be possible under the FCC’s arcane and arbitrary decency laws.
Instead, what his critics are doing is exercising one of their own fundamental American rights, their right as consumers to frequent the businesses they choose. This is not actually a constitutional right, but for Americans who may feel their right to vote doesn’t amount to much, our right to spend our money as we see fit affords us some additional measure of self-determination.
In the modern world of consumer defined identity, we use this power of the pocketbook for far more than satisfying visceral needs. Our shopping preferences have become clear signifiers of our values and our character. Any Branding 101 class teaches that values alignment is a key driver of consumer loyalty. Many companies have spent millions of dollars winning and retaining customers through value-based brand strategies. Shop at Whole Foods? Might as well scream “I care about the Earth!” (Or just carry your recycled Whole Foods shopping bag to scream it for you.) Apple user? Obviously hip, tech-savvy and cutting edge. Munching on some Newman’s Own cereal? Clearly someone who cares about philanthropy and your health. It’s a perfectly reasonable way to build a customer base. But it makes these companies responsible for upholding their end of the bargain.
In response to Rush’s ranting, no one has called for our government censorship. People have merely vocalized their desire not to be associated with companies that associate with Rush. Those associations risk reflecting on our values, which—in this case—so drastically diverge from his that we care enough to change our choices over it. There are no issues of law or free speech here. This is simply the marketplace doing its thing, shaping both our commerce and our culture by reflecting shared agreement on conduct and conscience.
By conflating this economic feedback loop with Rush’s right to free speech, Bill Maher played into a right-wing canard, misinterpreted the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment, and did himself and his viewers a disservice. In order to uphold the First Amendment, which is very important, it helps to know what it means. It does mean that Rush should not be censored for his views by the government apparatus. His opinions should not be criminalized, nor should his business be shut down by an arbitrary panel of judges empowered by the State. But nowhere in the Constitution is Rush, or anyone else, guaranteed the right to be shielded from popular outrage if he chooses to engage in hate speech, misogyny or slander. Advertisers who exercise their preference to support Rush do not have a right to retain customers angered by this decision. Above all, Rush is not guaranteed an enshrined right for the private sector to pay him for his outrageous behavior even if it costs them customers. His hate cannot and should not be forcibly subsidized.
Advertiser campaigns are hard to run and hard to win. I wrote about this when Lowe’s dropped the show All American Muslim. Companies weigh vocal customer concern against the backlash of a decision that could be perceived as political. At the end of the day, successfully attracting the attention of a business and changing their position on an ad buy carries a high threshold for action. Rush Limbaugh’s three-day tirade against an innocent woman expressing her own political views met and surpassed that threshold. His language made business leaders uncomfortable and supporting him risked their market share. That’s why the show has lost forty-six advertisers.
These kinds of consumer campaigns have become the embodiment of democratic principles in a country where consumer choices matter and the government is more and more influenced by corporations, rather than the other way around. The power of the pocketbook has the wonderful potential to crowd-source our cultural norms. The last two weeks have shown just how far outside of our cultural norms Rush resides.
That does not mean he should shut up. He should keep on speaking his beliefs. The First Amendment guarantees him the right to say whatever he likes. It does not guarantee him the right to be paid to say it. And the sooner Bill Maher and others get this right, the stronger our democracy will be.