Thursday, March 15, 2012

Rush Limbaugh, Hate Speech, and the First Amendment

Rush Limbaugh has a long history of demeaning people based upon their gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation. His record is a perfect demonstration of the fact that in the context of a public address hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. That does not mean that other people have to put up with it.

The Constitution protects many categories of speech that other people find offensive. People have the right to distribute, read, and view pornography. People have the right to burn the American flag in protest. People have the right to advocate that there be a Communist revolution. People have the right to praise Islamic terrorists.
People also have the right to make statements that are misognynistic, racist, anti-gay, and Islamophobic. Over the years Rush Limbaugh has persistently exercised his right to freedom of speech in those ways. It is the centerpiece of his political philosophy, the foundation of his entire career. As a white, straight, christian male he believes that he is superior to all other people who do not share all of those characteristics. I won't repeat his despicable language.  If you choose you may see his statements by linking to any of the following sites that have recorded the "highlights"  of his broadcasting career:
Gane McCalla, at NewsOne, Republished! Top 10 Limbaugh Racist Quotes (don't miss the ones set forth in the comments!);

John H. Richardson, Esquire, The Rush Limbaugh Racism No One's Paying Attention To (editor's note to John: A preposition is a terrible thing to end a sentence with!);
John K. Wilson, Rush's 53 Smears Against Sandra Fluke (in case you thought that Rush just "misspoke" when he called Fluke a couple of vile names);

Adam Clark Estes, Rush Limbaugh's Latest Verbal Victim Feels Derided, Dismissed (the day after he apologized to Fluke Limbaugh viciously attacked another woman).

Limbaugh has long kept Media Matters for America busy.  Their research department has compiled a lengthy list of Limbaugh's "greatest hits:"

The 20 Worst Racial Attacks Limbaugh's Advertisers Have Sponsored

15 Of Limbaugh's Most Offensive And Controversial Comments Targeting Immigrants

Rush Limbaugh's Worst Advertiser-Sponsored Attacks On The LGBT Community

"Feminazi": The Origin of Limbaugh's Trademark Slur Against Women

Rush Limbaugh's Decades Of Sexism And Misogyny

Limbaugh: Islam "Most-Known" for Its "Terrorist Wing"

Limbaugh calls Islamic cultural center "a victory monument at Ground Zero"

The 10 Worst Advertiser-Sponsored Moments Limbaugh Laughed At Human Suffering

UPDATED: Limbaugh's Misogynistic Attack On Georgetown Law Student Continues With Increased Vitriol

10 Of Limbaugh's Worst Advertiser-Sponsored Attacks On The Poor

No-one may be prosecuted, fined, or put in jail for indulging in any of these forms of hate speech.
But society does place limits on the time, place, or manner of speech. I wouldn't recommend bringing pornography to work or posting it in one's cubicle. It's probably unwise for a student to burn an American flag in his or her dormitory. You might think twice before calling someone a vile name at work or at school. Just because hate speech is constitutionally protected from criminal prosecution does not mean that it must be tolerated at all times or places. If Rush were to speak to one of his employees the way he so often speaks on the air he would be subject to sanction under non-discrimination laws.  If as a student he were to repeat some of his on-air comments in class he might be removed from the classroom, suspended, or expelled.  In 2003, Limbaugh's mercifully short tenure as a ESPN commentator came to a close after he made gratuitous, racist remarks about quarterback Donavan McNabb.  The law may not punish hate speech, but that does not mean that there are not consequences for it. 

As the host of a talk radio show Limbaugh is relatively insulated from legal consquences for engaging in hate speech.  The law rightfully imposes few limits on a person who is addressing the public.  Among those limits: the speaker may not incite a riot; the speaker may not defame individuals; and the speaker may not depict obscenity.  Short of those circumstances, however, as a radio host or a commentator Limbaugh can say or write whatever he wants and the law can and should do nothing about it.

The remedy for bad speech is more speech. Those who disagree with Limbaugh's message of hate can speak out against it, as I do today; refuse to listen to his programs; or boycott his sponsors. All of these responses, as well, are protected by the First Amendment.

Those of you who are inclined to defend Limbaugh, please don't pretend "everybody talks like this." No decent person does. Please don't try to justify him by pointing to some equally vile statement made by someone else. I would condemn that too, as should every decent person. And please don't defend what he has said by claiming that he has a constitutional right to say these things. I agree.

It's still wrong.

 Wilson Huhn teaches Constitutonal Law at The University of Akron School of Law.

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