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Contempt for the First Amendment?
By Robert Perkins January 21, 2004

Any analysis of a Presidential candidate should naturally consist of several factors. For example, a candidate’s past sins matter, a little bit, but not nearly as much as his or her enemies characterize, if it’s evident that the candidate had since changed ways. In fact, such a characteristic is very desirable in a potential candidate. A person who has shown that he can repent without waffling has demonstrated, among other things, that he is capable of humility.

His stance on the various issues matter as well, since that will suggest what the candidate will do with proposed laws. But the primary consideration to make regarding the candidates are whether or not he or she will uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States, along with all its amendments. And the only vehicles voters have to take the measure of a Presidential candidate are his behavior as President and his behavior as a candidate for President, or both.

Consider, for example, part of the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” George W. Bush’s record on the issues of basic constitutional rights ought to speak for his stance; his administration has a track record of behavior on those issues. For good or ill that record can be examined.

But in the field of Democratic candidates, we have only the things the candidates have said so far. In this context, believe it or not, one of Rush Limbaugh’s recent troubles highlights a very disturbing trait in some of them, for whom Mr. Limbaugh has been a vocal and influential detractor in his popular radio commentaries.

Specifically, Limbaugh made some comments about the NFL and about a football player while co-hosting a sports commentary show. To some, especially his enemies, those comments seemed racially motivated. On that basis, many influential people called for Rush Limbaugh to be fired from the show, and as we all know now, he resigned after a few days to bring the furor to an end.

Something similar happened to the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines as well, when she made her comments about the President while giving a concert in London this year. But the troubling part of this isn’t that Limbaugh or Maines made inappropriate comments and were then subjected to circumstances that lost them a job, or airplay, respectively. ESPN and Clear Channel may do whatever they wish, and neither Limbaugh nor Maines have had their voices diminished by the controversies. If anything, they are more visible now than before. And the Presidential candidates, as Americans, are certainly as free to say anything they wish to about it as voters are to judge their suitability for President based on it.

As we judge them, consider that candidates Wesley Clark and Howard Dean were both vocally appalled. Wesley Clark wrote a letter stating that “Mr. Limbaugh should be fired immediately.”[1] Howard Dean wrote a statement, “ESPN should terminate Limbaugh’s contract immediately… There is no legitimate place in sports broadcasting for voices that seek to discredit the achievement of athletes on the basis of race.”[2] And Al Sharpton made a statement, saying, “I’m going to call for ESPN to terminate Rush Limbaugh as we’ve seen other networks terminate people for racist remarks in the past.”[3]

Now, saying that a man should be fired from his job is not against any law, or even against common sense. But these are candidates for the Presidency. The elected candidate will have some direct control over the Federal Communications Commission, the governmental regulatory body whose sufferance makes transmitting ESPN’s signal possible in the first place. Put another way, three of the people who want the job of leading the branch of government which licenses radio spectrum and issues broadcast licenses wrote to or told a licensee to fire one of its employees, because they didn’t like what he said.

Within certain standards of decency and public safety, formulated by court cases since the first tests for those standards were proposed and then refined by the courts, speech such as Limbaugh and Maines made were far from subversive or dangerous, and broadcasters ought to be able to air them without comment from the Executive branch of government. Limbaugh’s comment threatened no standing political system (neither did Maines’); it was clearly his opinion about a man and the private institutions which talk about that man.

And it stands in marked contrast to their statements regarding the Dixie Chicks. Dean, the front-runner in this race, said during an interview last June, “…when the Dixie Chicks were kicked off the air for disagreeing with the President… I suddenly realized that this was a corporation who was censoring our ability to get information on our airwaves… We need to re-regulate the media.”[4]

Little else on either issue can be found among official Internet sites representing any of the nine Democratic candidates, but considering the content of Natalie Maines’ remarks and their own ongoing criticisms of President Bush’s performance as President, it can be reasonably assumed that all the others agree with Dean on at least that point. But that position cannot be reconciled with the call he, Clark, and Sharpton made to have Limbaugh fired.

Therefore, in calling for Limbaugh to be fired from his position at ESPN, Dean, Clark, and Sharpton demonstrated contempt for the First Amendment. Were any of those candidates President, one wonders whether they would behave as improperly in office when encountering similar situations. Because of their candidacies official notices to ESPN, and their public statements condemning him, we can only suppose that they would lay pressure on lawful FCC licensees to suppress speech they don’t like, and harass them to air speech they favor.

For that reason, they should not be considered viable candidates. It still leaves us with six candidates for the Democratic nomination who might be counted on to uphold and defend the Constitution no matter what, as these three may not, if given power. Watching all of them, and close scrutiny of all that the incumbent Bush administration has done, will tell us whether or not any one of them should get the votes they all say they deserve.


[1] Wes Clark Stands Up for Voting Rights

[2] Governor Dean's Statement on Rush Limbaugh

[3] Rush quits ESPN

[4] Howard Dean On The FCC's New Media Ownership Rules , italics in original

Copyright © 2003 by Robert Perkins


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