One of my favorite free speech stories concerns a young man who called me back in my ICLU days, to complain that a local fast-food chain wouldn’t hire him because he was tattooed all over. They found it unappetizing, and worried that customers might also. "Don’t I have a First Amendment right to express myself?" he complained. "Sure." I told him…
One of my favorite free speech stories concerns a young man who called me back in my ICLU days, to complain that a local fast-food chain wouldn’t hire him because he was tattooed all over. They found it unappetizing, and worried that customers might also. "Don’t I have a First Amendment right to express myself?" he complained. "Sure." I told him. "And the restaurant has a right to hire people who express its message."
What my young caller failed to understand was a very basic issue of constitutional law: only the government can violate your civil liberties. The Bill of Rights is a list of things that government–and only government– is prohibited from doing. In the absence of a law barring discrimination against tattooed teenagers, private folks can discriminate against them all they want.
I thought about that phone call when I read a couple of the recent diatribes against efforts by the gay community to convince Paramount not to air Dr. Laura’s new television program. A number of gay organizations have evidently sponsored letter-writing campaigns, in response to Dr. Laura’s well-publicized statement that all gays are pedophiles. The indignant writers insisted that such efforts amounted to censorship, and censorship, as we all know, is un-American, reprehensible, and probably fattening.
Sorry, but these self-proclaimed protectors of free speech have it backwards. Boycotts, protests, letter-writing campaigns and the like are precisely the sorts of activities that are supposed to contend in the American marketplace of ideas. They are constitutionally protected substitutes for the heavy hand of government. Just as anti-choice protesters have a constitutional right to picket abortion clinics and boycott manufacturers of abortion-inducing drugs; just as anti-pornography crusaders have a constitutional right to picket television studios and bookstores; those who disagree with Dr. Laura’s posturings have a right to try to persuade others to avoid her. Would the critics of this movement prefer having government suppress hate speech? After government defines it?
There are two very separate issues involved in the Dr. Laura dispute: the propriety of the campaign to get Paramount to change its mind; and the content of Dr. Laura’s various fulminations. Whatever one may think of Dr. Laura (personally, I try not to), she has every right to hate gays, demean people who disagree with her version of the "Judeo-Christian tradition" and to peddle her message to anyone who wants to buy it. Those who believe that she is toxic and ill-informed have every right to protest her comments, threaten to boycott her sponsors, and generally express their belief that she is a mean-spirited crone.
It’s the American Way.