The United States Department of Defense email server's automatic spam filter may have higher standards for decency than top military officials do.
The U.S. military operates several television and radio networks, both for domestic troops and for servicemembers and their families deployed at sea and abroad. In accordance with the Department of Defense's laudible free-speech policy, a broad spectrum of views are represented, including liberal commentators Ed Schultz and Alan Colmes and conservative pundits Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.
In the last few days, however, Limbaugh has come under fire, not for his conservative political views, but for a torrent of personal, sexualized attacks against a Georgetown law student, Sandra Fluke, who had testified at a Congressional hearing in support of insurance coverage for contraceptives (citing, among other things, the need for such care to treat medical conditions like ovarian cysts).
Limbaugh's attacks on Fluke were so virulent that over 30 of his advertisers have withdrawn support from his show, and a groundswell of citizen objections to Limbaugh's inclusion on Armed Forces broadcast networks has arisen. Among those complaining are female Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans (who, among other things, may be concerned about the impact Limbaugh's misogyny may have on servicewomen's unwillingness to report cases of rape and sexual harassment). Nevertheless, the Department of Defense has affirmed its support for including Limbaugh in its lineup, stating that it "does not censor content and [does] not seek to protect the overseas Department of Defense audience from hearing views with which they may disagree."
Apparently in response to mistargeted complaints, one of the military's broadcast arms, the Armed Forces Radio Network ("AFRN"), posted a message on its website saying, "PLEASE NOTE: AFRN does not air Rush Limbaugh. He is on AFN [American Forces Network] - EUROPE which is operated by AFRTS [American Forces Radio& Television Service], email them firstname.lastname@example.org."
On March 6, acting as a citizen and not as a writer, I attempted to email the American Forces Network at the email address provided. My email (copy viewable here) quoted some of Limbaugh's slurs against Ms. Fluke, in case its recipients did not know precisely what kinds of things had been said on military-sponsored, taxpayer-subsidized airwaves. Those quotations included the following:
"[She] says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute."
[People like Ms. Fluke] "want to have sex any time, as many times and as often as they want, with as many partners as they want."
"She and her co-ed classmates are having sex nearly three times a day for three years straight, apparently these deadbeat boyfriends or random hookups that these babes are encountering here, having sex with nearly three times a day."
"Ms. Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here's the deal: If we are going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. And I'll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch."
[Ms. Fluke] "is happily presenting herself as an immoral, baseless, no-purpose-to-her-life woman."
"She wants all the sex in the world, whenever she wants it, all the time."
"The error that the other server returned was: 554 554 5.7.1 Message refused by BannedWord check. This email has been rejected."
I rewrote and resent my email, replacing the word "sex" with "s_x," "slut" as "sl_t," etc. -- and it appears to have gone through with no problem.
Of course, the algorithm of a spam filter and the censorship policy of a government agency are different things -- but it's still intriguing: if words are so offensive that they make the Pentagon's "Banned Words" list and cause a citizen's email to be rejected, shouldn't the military re-examine the propriety of providing a taxpayer-funded, worldwide, privileged platform to the man who originally said them?
The issue, of course, is not "liberal vs. conservative." It's "civility vs. abuse." There are many outspoken, conservative commentators who would be ecstatic to have Limbaugh's slot on American Forces Radio -- but who would use that platform to discuss issues, not to slander individual citizens, or reinforce (mission-damaging) sexist stereotypes, as Limbaugh regularly does.
So the question for both civilian and military leaders like Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Douglas B. Wilson (who oversees AFTRS) remains a valid one: why does the military insist on spending taxpayer money to broadcast words that the Department of Defense's own email system considers too offensive to even be read?
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