Rush Limbaugh: Jane Fonda wants him kicked off air. Should FCC listen?

Feminist activists Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem are calling for the FCC to take action against Rush Limbaugh. Doing so, however, could create complications. 

Gus Ruelas/REUTERS/File
Actress Jane Fonda arrives at the The Weinstein Company after party following the 69th annual Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif. Fonda wrote an opinion article with Gloria Steinem calling for the FCC to take Rush Limbaugh off the air.

Should the Federal Communications Commission kick Rush Limbaugh off the airwaves because of his harsh speech? That’s what Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, and Robin Morgan are calling for in an opinion piece published today by CNN.

Ms. Steinem, Ms. Fonda, and Ms. Morgan are a trio of famous feminist activists, of course. Steinem is cofounder of “Ms. Magazine,” among other things. Fonda was, well, Jane Fonda – do we really need to say more? Morgan was a “Ms.” editor. Together the three are partners in the nonprofit Women’s Media Center.

Their argument is that Mr. Limbaugh’s use of the words “slut” and “prostitute” to describe Georgetown University Law student Sandra Fluke is par for Rush’s rhetorical course. He uses words like that all the time, they say.

“He promotes language that deliberately dehumanizes his targets,” they say.

If pressure on sponsors does not cause Clean Channel Communications to drop Limbaugh’s show, then the FCC should step in, Steinem, Morgan, and Fonda argue. Radio stations are supposed to use their licenses “in the public interest.” If enough listeners complain about Limbaugh, then the stations that carry him could be denied license renewal, according to the three women.

“It’s time for the public to take back our broadcast resources,” they write.

Well, we have this to say about that: You can think that Limbaugh’s words were vile, yet realize that this FCC strategy is unlikely to work, and could be dangerous.

First, it’s logistically difficult, since it would require an activist dump-Rush movement to remain focused on this strategy for years. The nation’s radio stations indeed have entered a cycle of license renewal applications, according to the FCC. But the last won’t come up for a re-do until 2014.

Will Limbaugh still seem like such a big target in two years? OK, given his tendency to utter anything that pops into his mouth maybe he will, but given the speed of the modern news cycle, we’re not sure.

Second, do we really want the US government to use its power to enforce speech codes? Yes, the First Amendment is not absolute, but if liberals go after Limbaugh in this manner, conservatives won’t just sit there, inactive. Plenty of folks on the right will are mad about Bill Maher’s words about Sarah Palin, and talk show host Ed Schultz’s language, and so forth. First they come for Rush Limbaugh, and then they come for Rachel Maddow.

“The US has been well served by legal and social norms that stop the government from targeting, punishing, or censoring political speech based on the perceived offensiveness of its content. Weakening that norm would result in attempts by the left and right to use speech codes as a cudgel against opponents,” writes Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic today in a piece that does a good job of summarizing objections to such an attempt.

Third, rightly or wrongly, Steinem, Morgan, and Fonda are jointly a red flag to many on the right. If they continue to attack Limbaugh, even conservatives who don’t like his methods will defend him. The Women’s Media Center might be better served to let less high-profile activists take the lead in this fight if they really want it to succeed.

“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,” writes W. James Antle III, associate editor of the conservative American Spectator, today in a piece titled “The Hush Rush Syndrome.”

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