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Jewish World Review March 14, 2000 /7 Adar II, 5760

John Leo

John Leo
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Watch what you say:
The left can no longer be counted on to defend free speech -- WHEN MOST DEMANDS for censorship were coming from the right, ideas and art were suppressed as shocking, obscene, or un-American. Now that campaigns against free speech are becoming a specialty of the left, the instinct to suppress is the same, but the rhetoric of the censors is drenched in concern about hate and violence.

Take the homosexual campaign to cancel Dr. Laura Schlessinger's forthcoming TV show, due in the fall from Paramount. As an Orthodox Jew, Dr. Laura believes in the scriptural ban on homosexuality that Jews and Christians have held for centuries. Gays are "entitled to respect and kindness as fellow human beings," she says, but she thinks homosexual sex is deviant behavior, the result of a biological error that interferes with the normal instinct to be attracted to the opposite sex. She believes marriage is a sacred contract between a man and a woman, and she thinks children are entitled to one mother and one father, not two mothers or two fathers.

These views offend many homosexuals, but do they amount to dangerous hate speech, worthy of suppression? One gay Web site calls Dr. Laura "The Queen of Hate Radio." Dr. Laura is not viewed as an adversary to be debated but as a hater to be delegitimized and silenced. John Aravosis, an Internet consultant and gay activist, asked Paramount to kill Dr. Laura's TV show by adopting a "zero tolerance philosophy" toward all hateful expression. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) denies it is trying to censor Dr. Laura, but it too has endorsed "zero tolerance for defamation" and asked supporters to contact TV stations to "register your concern that they have bought the Dr. Laura program."

The other side. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors officially warned Schlessinger about "making inaccurate statements about gays and lesbians that incite violence and hate." One supervisor said of Schlessinger: "At what point do her words become the equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater?" This is a clever verbal maneuver to justify suppression of an opposing viewpoint. Directly inciting violence and shouting fire in a crowded theater are illegal acts, not protected by free-speech guarantees. Some homosexuals are warning the news media, too, that dissenters should not be heard in stories about gays. Giving the other side, one activist said, is like asking a Nazi to give an opposing view in a news report about Hanukkah.

This us-against-the-Nazis attitude is responsible for the gay lobby's checkered record on free speech. Gays have disrupted conventions or pressured hotels into canceling meetings of the Rev. Louis Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition and the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), an organization of psychiatrists and psychologists who believe homosexuality is a treatable developmental disorder. One sign of the times: a New Zealand appeals court has just upheld a national ban on two American-made Christian videos, Gay Rights/Special Rights: Inside the Homosexual Agenda and AIDS: What You Haven't Been Told. Without a First Amendment, would the same sort of censorship now be occurring here?

Explaining free speech to the cultural left is becoming harder by the day. The rise of identity politics has produced the attitude that hurt feelings and fear of hurtful expres- sion trump free speech. At colleges, when campus ortho- doxy is about to be challenged, speakers are disinvited, student newspapers are stolen, and student cartoonists are fired, all without much of a ripple. Recent speakers canceled at various colleges include Hen- ry Kissinger; President Clinton's economic adviser Martin Baily; pro-choice columnist Anna Quindlen (a rare victim of conservative pressure); and University of Michigan President Lee Bollinger, whose speech on the First Amendment was shut down by students on his own campus.

The current political climate of the left, intensely focused on hate and harassment, has severely weakened old-line free-speech watchdogs like the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU now looks the other way on many free speech issues or even manages to come out on the side of censorship. In San Francisco, Hispanic employees of Avis Rent A Car complained that a supervisor persistently attacked them with racial epithets and insults. They sued and won. In upholding the damages, the California Supreme Court issued a list of offensive words that can no longer be used in any way in any workplace in the state, even jokingly among Hispanic Americans themselves. Racist speech should not be tolerated in the workplace, but do we want courts handing down lists of forbidden words? Columnist Nat Hentoff says this "may be the broadest and vaguest restriction of speech in American legal history." A dissenting California justice said the majority decision "would create the exception that swallowed the First Amendment." The ACLU of Northern California and the national ACLU both support this surprising restriction. The obvious is true. The left can no longer be relied on to support important First Amendment cases. For defenders of free speech, look to the center and to the right.

JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2000, John Leo