How Four of Rush Limbaugh's Critics Lost the Moral High Ground

The talk radio host deserves criticism. But calls for him to be ordered off the air and prosecuted for insulting Sandra Fluke go too far.

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For years, I've warned conservatives about the bigoted rhetoric and dubious analysis that Rush Limbaugh offers on his radio program. There is no bigger critic of the man than me. I am nevertheless appalled by the prominent liberals who want the state to use its coercive power to silence him. Writing at CNN.com, Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem actually compare the talk radio host to Josef Goebbels before arguing that if Clear Channel won't drop him the FCC should throw him off the air because his broadcasts aren't in the public interest. In a separate effort, celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred has sent the Palm Beach County state attorney a letter urging that office to prosecute Limbaugh under an antiquated law that treats as a misdemeanor speaking about a woman and "falsely and maliciously imputing to her a want of chastity."

Neither effort is likely to succeed. And thank goodness. The precedents these women would set are orders of magnitude more damaging than any offensive remark that Limbaugh has uttered. The U.S. has been well served by legal and social norms that stop the government from targeting, punishing or censoring political speech based on the perceived offensiveness of its content. Weakening that norm would result in attempts by the left and right to use speech codes as a cudgel against opponents. And as David Bernstein long ago observed in a different context:

There's a great irony in current First Amendment scholarship in that it tends to be people on the radical left, radical feminists and so-called critical race theorists, who are most in favor of granting government power to censor ideas that they disapprove of. And they seem to be under the impression that somehow you're going to allow the government to regulate hate speech... but somehow it's not going to impinge on them.

But once you start making exceptions to the First Amendment it's a very steep slippery slope and ultimately the restrictions won't be limited to hate speech, just generally unpopular speech. The irony is that the views of these radical left-wing professors, whether ultimately you think they're right or wrong, are clearly very unpopular. So it seems shortsighted that people who are among the most likely to eventually be censored will be those who are calling for weakening the traditional rule that the government cannot censor speech based on dislike of its viewpoint.

It is, finally, immoral to urge the state to silence or even arrest someone because their words are offensive, an ultimately subjective standard that everyone arguably transgresses against on occasion.

The behavior of Allred, Steinem, Fonda, and Morgan in this case reminds me of what Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain were doing during the uproar over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque: shortsightedly urging government to intervene, on flimsy pretenses, where it doesn't belong. Private citizens are perfectly capable of registering their objections without government -- and have no right to demand assistance from government in stopping what merely offends them.   

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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