Responsibility and the First Amendment

It has been widely reported that Dr. Laura Schlessinger has decided not to renew the contract for her well-known radio program. If you managed to miss the hoopla, in a recent on-air, telephone call from an African-American woman seeking advice regarding racial comments made by her husband, Dr. Laura used the “N” word 11 times.

Schlessinger’s point? That there is a double standard depending on who uses the word. In a transcript of the exchange, Schlessinger arues,“Black guys talking to each other seem to think it’s O.K. I don’t get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it’s a horrible thing. But when black people say it, it’s affectionate.” Her comments outraged the caller (who, to her credit, tried to explain the relationship between power and language in the U.S.), the public and some of the show’s advertisers.

In her interview on Larry King Live, where she announced the end of her show, Schlessinger proclaimed, “I want my 1st Amendment rights back, which I can’t have on radio without the threat of attack on my advertisers and stations.” This is a statement I found quite troubling. It assumes that free speech is the same as speech without responsibility or consequence. In the U.S., we have a lot of freedom to express our opinions, and this is a right that is protected in various ways. However, the First Amendment does not cover all speech in all circumstances. Nor does it abdicate our responsibility for the words we use and arguments we make.  And that is what Schlessinger is doing. She is abdicating her responsibility and blaming  “special interests” for the backlash against how she chose to express her ideas.

As someone who preaches the virtues of responsibility to her radio listeners, perhaps Schlessinger should take some of her own advice here. Pointing fingers at others (rather than oneself) mischaracterizes the democratic public sphere and each citizen’s responsibility as an active participant in it.

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About Double take Sociology

I am a professor of sociology at Florida State University. I research (and write about) social movements, mass media and politics. My new book is "Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America" (2015, Cambridge University Press). Be sure to visit my website at www.DeanaRohlinger.com!
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