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Jewish World Review August 28, 2000 / 27 Menachem-Av, 5760

Nat Hentoff

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Consumer Reports

Should Dr. Laura be silenced? -- THE CAMPAIGN by gays, lesbians and others to keep Dr. Laura Schlessinger off television -- the show is scheduled to start Sept. 11 -- is gaining momentum. The nation's largest advertiser of household products -- Procter & Gamble -- has decided not to advertise on the television show, and other sponsors are following. Meanwhile, because of the campaign, her radio program, which reaches 18 million listeners, has lost nearly 10 percent of its national advertisers.

Part of the "Stop Dr. Laura" campaign is aimed at convincing people to boycott companies that advertise on the radio show and companies that intend to advertise on the forthcoming television program. Boycotting is part of a long American tradition; it was practiced by Americans before the Declaration of Independence. It is a form of speech.

When Cesar Chavez called for a boycott of certain California fruit and vegetable firms because of appalling work conditions in the fields, my family carefully scrutinized the labels of produce in the supermarket.

But many of those pressuring Dr. Laura's sponsors want to silence Dr. Laura entirely. Joan Garry, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation -- which is leading the campaign -- told me that if the boycotts don't work she will demand that Paramount Television, the show's syndicator, censor Dr. Laura's "anti-gay" statements. And if that doesn't work, says Garry, her show should be canceled.

There are prominent gay activists who object vigorously to the war against Dr. Laura. New York Times columnist Andrew Sullivan warns that concerted moves to suppress speech can and will boomerang. Those prejudiced against homosexuals have organized campaigns to keep gays and lesbians off the air, and they will do so again.

And Bill Dobbs, a longtime advocate of gay rights, told the New York Blade, a gay newspaper: "Ridicule her, protest against her, turn her into a 'Saturday Night Live' skit. But by campaigning to cancel the show, we can no longer complain when it's done to us. ... It's a plain old censorship campaign, no matter what you call it."

During the reign of Joe McCarthy, private organizations such as Red Channels successfully and persistently worked to get alleged Communists, Communist sympathizers and just plain liberals off radio, movies and television.

The late David Susskind, a leading producer in those years, was forced to drop an 8-year-old girl from a television drama because Aware, Inc. -- self-described "professional consultants on the Communist Front records of persons working in the entertainment industry" -- had decided that the child's father was suspected of Red ties.

Years later, a very popular CBS-TV series, "Lou Grant" -- about a courageous newspaper editor -- was thrown off the air after right-wing organizations had conducted an unrelenting boycott of the sponsor's products. The boycotters claimed that the show's star, Ed Asner, supported liberal causes that those groups didn't like.

On the left, on the right, in colleges and universities, many Americans have forgotten that the basis of all our rights is our freedom to speak, to criticize, to protest. But when speech is entirely silenced, we subvert the most fundamental essence of our heritage.

As Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said: "If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought -- not free thought only for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought we hate."

An indication of how infectious this contempt for controversial free speech can be, Bill Bradley, hardly a reactionary, said -- during the primary campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination -- that the Dr. Laura program should not be allowed on television.

George Orwell, who knew that the thrust to silence dissenters comes from all directions, wrote: "If large numbers of people believe in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech even if the law forbids it. But if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them."

Throughout our history, blacks, Jews, Native Americans, labor union members and Catholics have been "inconvenient minorities."

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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