Speech and Consequences

Posted Aug. 29, 2010, at 7:34 p.m.

Two interesting — but disparate — events this month highlight the complexity and confusion surrounding the simple notion of freedom of speech. Courts have upheld broad spectrums of actions as free speech — including lying about one’s military service in a ruling this week. But, many are quick to forget that while they are free to say things that are offensive or untrue, they are not protected from the consequences of those utterances.

So, when controversial talk show host Laura Schlessinger — known as Dr. Laura — said recently that she had to quit her radio show to get her First Amendment rights back, she is confused.

Advertisers and radio stations are telling her to tone down her rhetoric because of the financial consequences they face. Stations don’t want to lose advertising and advertisers don’t want to lose customers because of some of the things Dr. Laura says. The conservative commentator basically confirmed this when she said she tired of threats from advertisers and stations because of what she said.

This is an issue of economics, not free speech. She is free to say what she wants as long as she — and her employers — are willing to bear the consequences.

The latest controversy came after Dr. Laura used the N-word with a black caller — in fairness, she asked why it was OK for blacks to use it, but not others — and then told the woman that if she was so offended, she shouldn’t have married “out of her race.” General Motors and Motel 6 pulled their sponsorships after the Aug. 10 show.

Over the decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that spending money to back candidates and campaigns is an exercise of free speech as is publishing pornography and inflammatory pamphlets.

Earlier this month, a panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, by a vote of 2-1, that lying is protected by the First Amendment and, therefore, a federal law outlawing false claims of military honors is unconstitutional.

The case involved Xavier Alvarez, who claimed he was the recipient of a Congressional Medal of Honor.

“We have no doubt that society would be better off if Alvarez would stop spreading worthless, ridiculous, and offensive untruths,” the majority opinion read. “But, given our historical skepticism of permitting the government to police the line between truth and falsity, and between valuable speech and drivel, we presumptively protect all speech, including false statements, in order that clearly protected speech may flower in the shelter of the First Amendment.”

The court noted that Mr. Alvarez and others have been ridiculed when the falsity of their military claims was revealed.

In other words, Mr. Alvarez had a right to lie, but he had to endure the consequences.

Likewise, for Dr. Laura — say what you want, but be prepared for what happens next.

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