Several of my favorite bloggers have undertaken a campaign to get a shock jock, Neal Boortz, removed from some Virginia radio stations for his inflammatory remarks about the Virginia Tech shootings. By now everybody in the Virginia blogosphere has heard Mr. Boortz’s unseemly and inaccurate statements so I am not going to link to them. I don’t need to spread his venom any further.
But for anybody who did miss his remarks, he and several other pundits have said that the students at Virginia Tech were somehow to blame for the massacre that occurred there a few weeks ago because they passively lined up to die and nobody fought back or tried to stop the shooter. I’ll deal with that in another, related post. For now let me just say that that was a completely inaccurate assessment of the situation, based on early, erroneous reports. But even if the students had in fact passively complied with the demands of a crazed killer who was firing rounds of bullets from a high capacity magazine, calling them “wussies” is ridiculous. Blaming the victim in a situation like this is despicable.
Unfortunately, campaigning to get the radio stations to cancel Boortz’s show or to get his syndication to fire him is both misguided and a colossal waste of energy.
It’s misguided because it has allowed the right to hijack the debate so that it’s no longer about what Boortz said but about censorship. Somehow, instead of focusing the discussion on Boortz’s statements, refuting them and exposing him for the pompous fraud that he is, liberals have allowed him to become the victim while they are now the villains. It would be nice to blame the right for this but the truth is people who call for silencing others really do bring those charges on themselves.
And yes this time it is censorship. It’s true that by one definition censorship is when the government knocks on somebody’s door and arrests him for making controversial statements. But censorship is also engaging in a dedicated effort to get radio stations to drop somebody because you don’t like what he said. This is not really allowing the market forces to remove Boortz. It is a concerted campaign to silence him.
Whatever happened to Voltaire’s “I may not agree with what you said but, I will defend to my death your right to say it.”
On the other hand, all of the energy going into this effort to get radio stations to remove Boortz is wasted because instead we should be fighting to revive the fairness doctrine.
Despite what conservatives tell you, they are no more in favor of free speech than the left is. What they really mean is that they favor preventing anybody from interfering with their right to dominate the airwaves. But contrary to their assertions, those airwaves are not private property and never were. Private companies lease the right to broadcast over the airwaves from the government, which owns the frequencies. That’s why the FCC can control content and fine companies for indecent broadcasts, just as the Bush appointed FCC did to CBS for Janet Jackson’s half-time fashion mishap a few years ago.
Some on the right may try to make the argument that the fairness doctrine is an attempt by the left to limit free speech. However, it is anything but that. In fact, it would expand freedom of speech. All the fairness doctrine says is that some time must be set aside on public airwaves for opposing points of view.
There’s an old saying that you are free to say whatever you want, but you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater. That may not be entirely true. I once attended a free speech symposium where the speaker, an ACLU member, said you should be free to yell fire as long as somebody else is right beside you to yell equally loudly, “that’s a lie; you’re safe so sit back down.”
In other words, your freedom of speech is only as secure as mine is. Each side will only stop lobbying to silence others whose opinions they dislike when there is a place for everybody to be heard.
It’s no good pontificating about free debate and the marketplace of ideas when it doesn’t actually exist. And if only one side gets to dominate the airwaves it’s not much of a marketplace. It’s more like a monopoly. And when that happens those shut out of the market will continue to shout down the other side by attempts at censorship.
Even more important, it is in the common good and absolutely vital to democracy to have a real marketplace of ideas with genuine, lively, spirited debate. And it’s especially crucial to be able to point out when somebody is spreading lies. And that’s what Boortz and others like him are doing every time they repeat the story that the students at VT did nothing to prevent Cho from shooting them.
It’s like crying fire in the crowded theater. You can either silence the shouter, or you can allow the dissenter to stand there and point out that there is no fire. One way will lead to real censorship; the other will expand freedom of speech for all and give the public a genuine marketplace of ideas. It will protect democracy by allowing the minority opinion to be heard, even against the crowd.