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Speak and Let Speak

Dr. Laura vs. homosexuals: a case study in free speech



In response to my columns, I've been anointed a "queen for the day" by gay readers, cursed for supporting the "deviants" and "sinners," and chastised for challenging Dr. Laura Schlessinger's free speech.

The last one merits discussion. First, I've never said Paramount Television should drop Dr. Laura's upcoming syndicated show. That's up to Paramount. Besides, it could be an amazing window into the belief systems of people, like Dr. Laura, who argue that gays need to be fixed somehow. Television was a powerful tool in the Civil Rights Movement -- it was hard for many Southerners, for instance, to keep supporting the local KKK efforts when TV movies showed innocent black men flapping in the wind. Likewise, Internet hate sites must not be censored: We need to know what evil lurks. Otherwise, we relax into complacency and act shocked when the next bias-driven crime occurs.

However, any group -- whether homosexuals, minority communities or the Christian right -- have the right to boycott businesses they believe are acting irresponsibly. Organized boycotts raise awareness on both sides, attract media attention and promote discussion in society at large. They don't always work out as planned -- ask Focus on the Family about Disney -- but they are vital tools in a free society.

My e-mail, however, shows that many people fail to consider the differences between boycotts and censorship. Some factions, pro- and anti-gay, have accused the organizers of trying to "censor" Dr. Laura. That is misinformed: Unless the government is involved in some way, her First Amendment freedoms are not being challenged. Argue if you will that she has the right to say whatever she wants -- she does as long as she is not threatening individuals or inciting riots -- and lobby in favor of her television show, but don't trot out the "censorship" bogeyman. It just does not apply here, nor should it.

Several readers angrily said I have no right to question Dr. Laura's position; it's free speech, they say. Now, First Amendment scholars, what's wrong with this statement? First, I'm not challenging her free speech; I just don't agree with her that homosexuality is a deviant behavior that merits public ostracizing or limiting someone's constitutional rights. I know that the majority of homosexuals are not pedophiles, just as I know that most heterosexual men do not sit around planning to rape a woman. I also know that a free society cannot function by the rules of select religious groups.

I also believe that, if not challenged in any way, Dr. Laura's nave statements could reach an impressionable young mind looking for an excuse to harass or kill another Matthew Shepard. None of that means the state should censor Dr. Laura -- unless she poses an immediate threat to an individual -- but it does mean that I can use my free-speech rights to challenge the veracity and morality of her views. So can her despised homosexual "lobby."

What we have here is simple: a chain of individuals exercising their free speech. Dr. Laura has the right to say gays and lesbians are "biological errors" (which, ironically, backs up the argument that people are born gay); homosexuals have the right to boycott her television show and criticize her publicly in response; Paramount has the right to air or cancel her show; I have the right to write about the whole fracas; and readers have the right to criticize any or all of the above (although not the right to harass individuals with obscene e-mail, but that's another column). This case is an exercise in how a free society should work -- with no government interference in sight.

Now, though, imagine if a pro- or anti-gay politician decided to try to capitalize politically from the melee. He or she tries to introduce a bill that would prohibit -- or offer incentives to Paramount or an Internet service provider to limit -- the speech of one side or the other (as has been tried with porn and hate sites by conservatives and liberals alike). Then, Houston, we'd have a problem. As it is, we're watching a perfectly legitimate public debate unfold. We should take notes.

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