"I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Believers in free speech and civil liberties, many of them liberals, have repeated this Voltaire quote so many times it has become a cliche.
Some even applied this principle to excess, treating topless dancing the same as political speech and defending neo-Nazis who wanted to march through a community of Holocaust survivors. There is no right to yell "fire" in a crowded theater. But the principle itself is essential to a free society.
Voltaire has since been replaced by Ring Lardner: "Shut up he explained."
Pat Buchanan was hounded off the air in February, ostensibly for things written in his latest book that in fact differed little from views he had expressed for years. MSNBC president Phil Griffin proclaimed the book unfit for the "national dialogue" despite the fact it was a New York Times bestseller.
If ideas with enough reach to land on the bestseller lists are too dangerous, we should not be surprised some liberals believe the radio talk show host with the largest audience should not be heard either. Rush Limbaugh may admire Ronald Reagan, but it is his critics who want sponsors to say, "I paid for this microphone."
"No apology is good enough," read feminist Gloria Feldt's indictment. "Rush must go. Period." What of his 20 million listeners, many of them women, who do not want Rush to go? The right side of the sisterhood must get with the program. "Time for women to make Rush Limbaugh history."
Limbaugh isn't the only one Feldt, a former Planned Parenthood CEO, would like to make history: "It's time for these men, like Pat Buchanan, Foster Friess, and Rick Santorum to climb back under the prehistoric rock from whence they came."
More ominously, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, suggested Limbaugh should be dropped from Armed Forces Radio. Levin at least paid lip service to the First Amendment. "I would hope the people that run it see just how offensive this is and drop it on their own volition," he maganimously told CNN.
Feminist golden oldies Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan, and Gloria Steinem took the next step in calling for the FCC to "clear Limbaugh from the airwaves." The trio writes, "If Clear Channel won't clean up its airways, then surely it's time for the public to ask the FCC a basic question: Are the stations carrying Limbaugh's show in fact using their licenses 'in the public interest?'"
"This isn't political," the political activists maintain. "While we disagree with Limbaugh's politics, what's at stake is the fallout of a society tolerating toxic, hate-inciting speech." Fonda, Morgan, and Steinem accuse Limbaugh of having "hidden behind the First Amendment."
Calling spectrum a "scare government resource," the three argue there is nothing wrong with yanking the broadcast licenses of stations carrying Limbaugh's show. "It's time for the public to take back our broadcast resources," they conclude. (This also serves as useful reminder of how secure civil liberties are when resources are collectively owned.)
No longer is it good enough to disagree with conservatives. They must be fired from their jobs, separated from their advertisers, booted from the airwaves, buried under a prehistoric rock. The tactics attributed to Joe McCarthy tied to the polemical rigor associated with Jenny McCarthy.
But who are these gatekeepers? The Color of Change, the group which organized against Buchanan, Lou Dobbs, Glenn Beck, and the late Andrew Breitbart, was co-founded by Van Jones, who had to resign from the Obama administration for signing a petition endorsing 9/11 truther conspiracies. Are Jones' views certifiably mainstream and unimpeachably fit for the national dialogue?
One need not agree with anything the criticized conservative commentators have written or said. Concerning the remarks that ignited the firestorm currently embroiling Limbaugh, this writer believes the columnist Jeff Jacoby is right on the money. And in a polarized political climate, this kind of censoriousness is not a strictly liberal offense.
There are also honorable exceptions to the liberal purges. "As we all know, Limbaugh's First Amendment rights aren't involved here -- freedom of speech means freedom from interference by the government," writes the veteran columnist Michael Kinsley, referring only to the boycotts. "But the spirit of the First Amendment, which is that suppressing speech is bad, still applies."
Networks can hire who they want. Advertisers can spend their money as they choose. But there is something unsavory about these organized boycotts and politically motivated pressure tactics. There is something much worse about the government deciding which speech is in the public interest.
If you don't like Limbaugh, Dobbs, Beck, or Buchanan, don't listen to them. If you think they are purveying ideas that are wrong-headed or mistaken, debate and refute them. But among some of the left's self-styled defenders of free speech, personal autonomy, and choice, this old-fashioned liberalism is no longer in vogue.