03/13/2012 07:01 pm ET Updated May 13, 2012

We Can Write Letters to the Editor or We Can Boycott

Comedian Bill Maher recently received some unexpected criticism from activists on his side of the political spectrum. They were upset with him for failing to rejoice at the spectacle of more than 40 advertisers withdrawing their sponsorship of Rush Limbaugh's radio show in response to insulting comments Limbaugh made on the air. Not only did Maher not applaud this exodus, he was mildly alarmed by it, viewing it as a clear assault on the First Amendment.

Of course, this is more than a purely academic issue for Maher. Many will recall that, in June of 2002, Maher's own ABC television show, Politically Incorrect, was yanked off the air for similar reasons. When major sponsors (notably Sears and FedEx) withdrew their advertising in protest of Maher's controversial remarks (foolishly interpreted to be pro-terrorist), the Sinclair Broadcasting Group immediately pulled the plug on the show's ABC affiliates, and Politically Incorrect was history.

Maher's objections made sense. He argued that if advertisers can dictate what stays on the air and what doesn't, we have, in effect, relinquished our right to free speech. If media sponsors are given the final say as to which opinions are allowed to be expressed, and which opinions aren't, it means we've handed over a precious, constitutional right to the corporations. Not good.

But there's a fine distinction here -- a distinction between corporate cowardice and consumer muscle. And the Limbaugh episode is a prime example of the latter. Without any threat of boycotts, Rush's advertisers fled the show en masse, hypocritically pretending that his comments were so outrageous -- so offensive, so repugnant -- that they couldn't bear to be associated with such a program, even though they'd have to be blind, deaf and dumb, and a presidential candidate not to realize that this kind of material was Limbaugh's stock in trade. The only difference? This particular slur got some bad press... culminating in rats deserting a not-yet-sinking ship.

Advertisers fleeing Limbaugh is reminiscent of the Hollywood blacklists of the 1950s, a phenomenon that, surprisingly, has been misunderstood by many. You still hear people blame the blacklists on HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee), declaring it was HUAC who forbade the studios to hire certain actors and writers suspected of subversive activities. The opposite was true. It was the studios themselves who voluntarily initiated the blacklists (ruining careers in the process), fearing that HUAC's Commie smear campaign might damage their box office.

Boycotts are different. Boycotts are manifestations of public outrage aimed at specific targets, for specific reasons, with the goal being to change specific policies or practices, with the weapon of choice being the threat of wreaking economic hardship. While most boycotts fail, some actually do work.

Coors beer (the Coors family helped establish the Heritage Foundation) suffered a public relations setback a few decades ago when Paul Newman, among others, threatened a boycott. In the late 1970s, an AWPPW-led west coast boycott of Scott Paper did considerable damage to sales (so much damage that some Scott facilities were forced to curtail operations, resulting in AWPPW production workers being laid off). And wasn't economic pressure largely responsible for South Africa abandoning apartheid?

Economic leverage isn't the enemy of free expression; it's a form of free expression. Not to pick on Bill Maher (whom I enjoy and watch regularly on HBO), but if a labor union were to launch a successful boycott of a vehemently anti-union company's products -- a boycott that ultimately led to management negotiating a fair labor agreement -- would Maher view this as an infringement of the company's right to free speech? An infringement of the company's right to express its rabidly anti-union point of view?

Didn't Ralph Nader say that the biggest and potentially most powerful lobby in the country -- infinitely bigger and badder than the NRA, AIPAC, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- was the American consumer?

If consumers chose not to buy new shoes for two months, the shoe business would collapse. If consumers drank only tap water instead of Coke, Pepsi, et al, for two months, the beverage industry would go belly up. Indeed, this is where the true power of the 99% resides... in our role as consumers.

Clearly, Limbaugh's sponsors bailing out was an example of grandstanding and gutlessness, and once the smoke settles most of these advertisers can be expected to come crawling back. But boycotts are different. What's wrong with trying to put the economic squeeze on sleaze radio? For that matter, what's wrong with trying to kill it? Limbaugh influences millions of people. If the Acme Widget Company were his main sponsor, wouldn't launching a national boycott of Acme products make eminent sense?

Let's not conflate free speech with willful deceit, or political discourse with agitprop, or hate radio with healthy public debate. They're not equal. And let's not pretend that exerting economic leverage is unethical or off-limits, because it isn't. In fact, it may be the only arrow we have in our quiver.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at