Thursday, April 3, 2008

Randi Rhodes and The First Amendment

Air America Radio suspends Randi Rhodes for using the "W" word.

In the 1919 case Schenk v. The United States, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech doesn't permit someone to falsely yell "fire" in a crowded theater. That interpretation of our Constitutional rights was brought up to date today when the management of Air America Radio suspended talk show host Randi Rhodes for calling Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton "whores." Ms. Rhodes' live tirade was not broadcast on the Air America network. We know about it because it was captured on tape and made available for endless viewing on YouTube.

When our Founding Fathers added the First Amendment to the Constitution, they didn't anticipate two things: first, that there would someday be radio and radio talk shows, and second, that there would someday be YouTube. If they had, they would have included a clause like, "Freedom of speech shall not be abridged, except when talk show hosts use foul language when describing a political candidate and the whole thing is captured on video and shown on YouTube."

Surely the owners of liberal talk radio network Air America were thinking of this Constitutional omission when they suspended Ms. Rhodes. But let's be clear about the intent here. No one would argue that these prominent politicos, Ferraro and Clinton, are literally whores in the Elliot Spitzer sense of the term. If you go to YouTube and watch the video (14,907 views as of 2:40 on Thursday) it is clear that Ms. Rhodes was using the term to mean that these women will "sell" themselves to the highest bidder for political advantages. (How else to explain Ms. Clinton's recent decision to appear before Richard Scaife's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial board?) I would argue that that appearance makes Ms. Clinton less of a whore and more of a hooker, but let's not quibble over technicalities.

It is OK to call Ms. Clinton a murderer, a fraud, and other foul names if you are writing for the Tribune-Review (see their coverage of the Vince Foster suicide). It is unacceptable for a radio talk show host to use pejorative language against Ms. Clinton before a small group of appreciative listeners if it is captured on tape and ends up on YouTube. So we have to assume that in this case the medium is truly the message.

Every society has its taboos. Our culture distinguishes "polite" language from "foul" language. The management of Air America Radio would have us believe that this modern taboo trumps any Constitutional rights or privileges we may think we have.


Anonymous said...

Blechman does not understand the First Amendment, which was added to the federal constitution to protect an individual's rights from government censorship. Rhodes was not censored by the government, she was suspended by her employer for violating her employment contract.

CML said...

I would believe that the "liberal talk radio network Air America" would be permitted to maintain their own standards of quality with regards to their own talk radio hosts.

In the statement released by Air America, chairman Charlie Kireker clearly states that while they encourage "strong opinions about public affairs," they "do not condone such abusive, ad hominem language by our hosts."

Air America has also said that Randi's suspension will be "indefinite," in order to gauge public reaction.

It's up to the station to determine what standards they would like their guests to live up to, and I'm glad that some attention is finally being paid to the incredibly vulgar, vitriolic and offensive Ms. Rhodes.

Dr. Fallon said...

The issue is a bit more complicated than Anonymous (is that your real name?) would like to think.

Randi Rhodes is a comedian (albeit an incredibly vulgar and not very funny one) and a commentator (like it or not) who gets paid for satirizing political figures.

The first amendment does, indeed, protect satire, so suggesting that this is an open-and-shut case with no civil liberties ramifications is way premature.

By the way, the first amendment is a protection from censorship, wither it is by government, or by someother organization that wields power and authority over individuals.

Robert K. Blechman said...

I agree with "anonymous" that we would be perfectly fine trusting our civil liberties to corporations like Exxon-Mobile, Citigroup or AT&T and the feudal chieftains who run them.

However, Air America Radio operates over public airwaves. They hired Randi Rhodes because she is outspoken and controversial because that improves ratings and increases profits. They knew what they were getting. They have the absolute right to publish a statement condemning Rhodes' use of foul language, but when they include job suspension or any other penalty they are inhibiting free speech and setting a really bad example for other would-be censors would may not be quite so liberal.

Randi is a public commentator riffing on public figures.

Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton are big girls and can take care of themselves. They don't need protection from Charlie Kireker.

Anonymous said...

anonymous is correct. dr.fallon says "the first amendment is a protection from censorship, wither (sic) it is by government, or by someother organization that wields power and authority over individuals."
WRONG The amendment begins "Congress shall make no law ..."
The first amendment would be implicated if the FCC or other government agency was the actor. Here, it is Air America.
Blechman is closer to the mark by faulting the suspension as a "really bad example" by a free spirit organization. It is a policy, not rights issue.
Don C.

Anonymous said...

" is clear that Ms. Rhodes was using the term to mean that these women will "sell" themselves to the highest bidder for political advantages."

I'm not sure it matters to AA what Ms Rhodes meant to say. AA suspended her because she wasn't toeing the company line. I'm guessing AA probably endorses Clinton,or at least is sympathetic to her campaign, and Rhodes' comments offended AA's corporate ideology. I would expect any media outlet to suspend an on-air personality if he or she willfully violated company policy.

If Katy Couric or Brian Williams made offensive comments on the evening news, I expect CBS and NBC would suspend them too.

I agree with anonymous; this is an interesting, politically-tinged situation, but it's not a constitutional issue.