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Rashad Robinson

Rashad Robinson

Posted: August 19, 2010 05:45 PM

'Dr. Laura' Is No Free Speech Victim

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I watched on Tuesday as "Dr. Laura" Schlessinger told Larry King she'd be leaving her radio program after 30 years on the air and more than a decade and a half of national syndication. Schlessinger told King -- in her own words -- "I want to regain my First Amendment rights." I watched again on Wednesday as she told John Roberts that her freedom of speech had been taken away.

I wish I could say that I am stunned that "Dr. Laura," who has spent a career giving irresponsible advice to millions, is sadly positioning herself as the victim -- but I am not. I also wish I could say that I am surprised that she is mischaracterizing "free speech" -- but I am not. I am not stunned or surprised because after years of trafficking in dehumanizing and false rhetoric about many communities, this is just another chapter in "Dr.Laura's" take-no-responsibility book.

The First Amendment protects her freedom of speech in a court of law. It says nothing about the court of public opinion. The Constitution guarantees that Schlessinger can say whatever she wants in private. It does not guarantee her the right to an audience that she claims is as many as nine million listeners every week. It also does not guarantee that Americans will not respond to her ugly and vulgar rhetoric.

Larry King did challenge her on how, exactly, her free speech was being threatened. John Roberts asked the same question. This is something that every host, of every news show, on every network across this country should do every time they hear someone call upon the First Amendment as a defense, when the First Amendment has no bearing on their situation whatsoever. She was never able to explain how the First Amendment applied to her -- other than to say that she is being "silenced."

This misinterpretation or blatant mischaracterization of free speech is hardly uncommon. Supporters of Andrew Breitbart just last month cried "free speech" when he was criticized for pushing an edited video which falsely portrayed Shirley Sherrod as being racist. And Sarah Palin sent out a tweet supporting "Dr. Laura," telling her "don't retreat...reload!" Palin wrote that Schlessinger is leaving her show - in Palin's words - "bc her 1st Amend.rights ceased 2exist thx 2activists trying 2silence."

What Schlessinger, Palin, and so many others fail (or refuse) to comprehend is that "freedom of speech" is not "freedom from the consequences of speech." If a figure who has put him or herself in the public eye uses speech to harm others, he or she must held accountable. Critics have the responsibility to exercise THEIR freedom of speech in order to educate the public when false and hurtful information is being spread. We learned in the late 90s how "Dr. Laura" feels about LGBT people. We now know how "Dr Laura" feels about race. The public has a right to know whether her sponsors agree with her, and Schlessinger's advertisers have every right to drop their support.

In the early part of this decade the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and LGBT activists at StopDrLaura.com petitioned advertisers and studio executives to make sure "Dr. Laura" Schlessinger's dangerous, homophobic rhetoric, in which she called lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people "destructive, disordered, unhealthy" and a "biological error," did not remain on television. She spent those years making the same bogus claims about how her "free speech" was being threatened. Eventually, she did halfheartedly apologize in a full-page ad, but still took no responsibility for her actions.

Now it has played out again, this time with a coalition of advocacy groups across the country petitioning sponsors who don't want their names associated with a woman who says African Americans are "hyper-sensitive" about race and have "a chip on their shoulder," or a radio professional who, after 30 years on the air, doesn't know that she can't use the N-word at her place of work. Advertisers don't want to support a woman who thinks that questions posed to a single African American about what ALL Black people think are appropriate, because, in Schlessinger's words, "a lot of blacks voted for Obama simply 'cause he was half-black. Didn't matter what he was gonna do in office, it was a black thing." Radio listeners don't want their airwaves polluted by a woman who had this exchange with John Roberts:

ROBERTS: Much of this controversy is over the "N" word. But there were some other things that you said during that broadcast that other people found even more troubling than the "N" word, such as when you said, quote, "I really thought that, once we had a black president, the attempt to demonize whites hating blacks would stop, but it seems to have grown, and I don't get it." Some people thought that was really a racist point of view.

SCHLESSINGER: I don't. I think that was an observation.

At the end of the day Schlessinger isn't being silenced, as she suggests. We live in a country where she still has the right to use the N-word or call gay people "destructive, disordered and unhealthy." She will not go to jail and may make plenty of money speaking to groups that share her values. However, her inability to continue making millions of dollars on her nationally-syndicated show is a testament to our ability, as Americans, to speak out against hurtful and defamatory speech. We have the right to demand respect for ourselves and our neighbors.