A lot of my friends are talking about free speech lately, specifically in relation to the oft-heard defense of people who object to criticism by saying, “I have the right to free speech.” To which the answer is, quite reasonably, “Of course you do, and so do your critics.”
But there is something that bothers me. It’s become fashionable in recent years to protest or criticize offensive speech by figures on radio and television by putting pressure on their advertising sponsors. The idea is to shame the sponsors so they will pull their ads, depriving the offender of funding and possibly forcing him or her off the air.
I’ve had difficulty articulating why I think this is wrong, so I’m glad to have found this piece by First Amendment attorney Mark Randazza (via Jay Lake) that explains it much better than I could, myself. He uses the recent Rush Limbaugh scandal as a jumping off point for his essay. Randazza very aptly highlights the difference between legality and morality, and why both are important:
Another way to get Limbaugh off the air is to try and pressure his syndicator or his advertisers — gathering people of like mind to use their collective economic power to force Limbaugh off the air. This is constitutionally tolerable, but morally wrong. If you disagree with someone who is on stage, it is wrong to stand up and yell to drown out his voice. This improperly interferes with your fellow citizens’ right to receive information.
I agree with this completely. When I hear offensive speech, I either exercise my own right to free speech by responding, or I exercise my right not to listen to the offensive speech and (if applicable) not to buy products related to the speech. But I won’t join a campaign to silence someone by putting economic pressure on their advertisers. If the advertisers themselves are offended and want to pull their support, that’s great. Good for them. That’s free speech in action right there. But an actual or implied threat of boycott is over the line in my opinion, and could be equally used by the “good guys” or the “bad guys” to silence any speech that might offend anyone.
And, in fact, you don’t have to look very far to find a case where the good guys lose to this sort of action. The TLC reality program American Muslim was recently canceled after a successful campaign to lobby advertisers to pull ads from the show, I guess because people are offended by the existence of muslims. Some big advertisers, including Lowe’s, caved to the pressure and pulled funding. The putative reason for the cancellation was low ratings, but it’s hard to believe that the loss of ad dollars didn’t play a role. Do we really want to castrate our media by forcing it to pull off the air anything that offends any group of sufficient size to make a sponsor nervous? I surely don’t.
I’m with Randazzo. Let the crazies and wingnuts have their say. Then we get to have ours.