What Are We Free to Say -- in Comments and on The Air?
The U.S. is a free country. Its citizens are free to express ideas without fear. But how much, and what exactly are we free to say? The three cofounders of the Women's Media Center -– Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem –- published an op-ed post on CNN on Monday urging the FCC to remove Rush Limbaugh from public airwaves.
Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda (©John Barrett/ZUMA Press)
The authors talk about how Limbaugh uses hate-inciting speech to dehumanize and degrade. While defending his right to say whatever he wants, they question his right to continue to use the public airwaves to promote his statements. They say,
It's time for the public to ask the FCC a basic question: Are the stations carrying Limbaugh's show in fact using their licenses "in the public interest?"
Spectrum is a scarce government resource. Radio broadcasters are obligated to act in the public interest and serve their respective communities of license. In keeping with this obligation, individual radio listeners may complain to the FCC that Limbaugh's radio station (and those syndicating his show) are not acting in the public interest or serving their respective communities of license by permitting such dehumanizing speech.
I don't know how well a campaign of letters to the FCC will work, but I think it's a brilliant idea. Since his recent denunciation of Sandra Fluke, Think Progress reports, 140 companies have stopped advertising with Limbaugh. Money may talk, but complaints are the engine driving the advertisers to drop their sponsorship. Complaints may influence the FCC as well.
The phenomenon of Limbaugh has largely been about money -- his outrageous pronouncements bring media attention and spark a lot of traffic to his programs. His diatribes have been working. Certainly the media doesn't pay attention to anyone who is saying reasonable things -– there's no controversy in that.
Speaking in Comments
Another response to articles about Limbaugh is a thundering herd of commenters who want to agree or disagree with him.
At SXSW the other day, I attended a session with Nick Denton, head of Gawker Media, which includes Gawker, Lifehacker, Jezebel and other sites. CNN Tech reported on the session in Have Online Comment Sections Become a Joke?
Denton talked about "the tragedy of the comment," saying that he had hoped that comments would be intelligent commentary that would add to the interest and scope of any article under discussion. He expressed disappointment that most of the time comments are either insipid, unintelligent or toxic.
Denton said authors don't have time to respond to comments and that comments require too much moderation. He mentioned experiments he's conducted at Gawker with various ways to reward good commenters. His next experiment is going to involve hand-picked commenters –- people he thinks will offer insight and spark more discussion.
All the while he was talking, I was thinking about how comments work at BlogHer. Many times BlogHer has articles that sparked very thoughtful and important comment threads. I've seen some excellent discussions on BlogHer.
BlogHer is very clear about its guidelines for both posting and commenting. BlogHer says,
we agree to agree and to disagree-as strongly as need be-without crossing the boundaries into unacceptable content . . .
Then BlogHer spells out exactly what unacceptable content is. When asked about sites that set guidelines for behavior (not BlogHer in particular, but sites in general), Denton said,
"It's certainly true that nice sites run by nice people ... that encourages good behavior."
It isn't all "nice sites run by nice people" at BlogHer, because I know there are BlogHer staff members who work every day on moderating comments and if a comment doesn't meet the guidelines it won't get published or it gets removed. And, like any site, BlogHer gets its share of plain old spam comments, which get culled out as well.
Is It Where you Say It, or What you Say?
If you say something that BlogHer won't allow into a comment because it is threatening or harassing, that doesn't prevent you from saying it. It just prevents you from saying it here. In the same way, Fonda, Morgan, and Steinem are talking about Limbaugh's right to say what he says in a public space. They state,
This isn't political. While we disagree with Limbaugh's politics, what's at stake is the fallout of a society tolerating toxic, hate-inciting speech. For 20 years, Limbaugh has hidden behind the First Amendment, or else claimed he's really "doing humor" or "entertainment." He is indeed constitutionally entitled to his opinions, but he is not constitutionally entitled to the people's airways.
BlogHer recently published Maher: As Misogynist as Limbaugh and as Free to Be Vile, taking on the topic of vile and demeaning speech from those on the liberal side of the political landscape. The comments after that article demonstrate the value of BlogHer's comment policy, and led the author of the post, Dani Nichols, to comment,
I'm the author of this post and I'm thrilled to see how many others care about how we speak about current affairs and each other.... thank you BlogHer for giving us the incredible forum to debate and dialogue with each other... potentially even to see another perspective or change someone's mind.
I certainly agree with Nick Denton that we need more intelligent discourse about a whole array of topics online. I hope he finds ways to connect intelligent commenters with his content. But I think the women of the Women's Media Center are on to something when they say that demeaning and dehumanizing speech should not receive public support. The women of ShePAC, creators of the Maher video deserve your attention, as well.
What do you think about the freedom to say whatever you want, wherever you want?