The Right Has It Wrong on Media Matters' Campaign Against Limbaugh

Three weeks after issuing an apology for his controversial statements about Sandra Fluke, Rush Limbaugh still finds himself under attack. The latest development is Media Matters' $100,000 ad campaign to persuade advertisers and stations to drop him. Conservative media has come out in support of Limbaugh, arguing that the campaign is "censorship" and an attack on rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

There are so many parties wrong in this ugly dispute that it's hard to take any side. Let's start with a few disclaimers.

I'm a libertarian and while that doesn't necessarily mean that I agree with conservatives on everything, I agree with Limbaugh's substantive position on the original issue. I do not believe that the government should force insurance companies to pay for contraceptives. That's an easy one, because I don't believe that the government should force any party to a voluntary contract to do anything.

I didn't particularly like the way that Limbaugh chose to express his position. I don't believe it was necessary to hurl such vile insults to make his point. At the same time, I don't think it calls for a campaign to ruin his livelihood. Throughout all of human history, the remedy for an insult has been an apology, even back when overdressed men in stockings used to shoot at each other at twenty paces over them.

I don't see anything wrong with Limbaugh's apology, either. It is not in any way "left-handed" or ambiguous. He clearly restates his position on the substance of the issue and very unambiguously says that his choice of words was wrong. He ends with, "I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices." That should have settled the matter.

These are my opinions. You may agree or disagree with them. You can do neither and think them over for ten or fifteen months. Don't worry; we'll probably still be talking about this.

Now, here is the part where the right has it wrong. Media Matters' campaign is not "censorship" and has nothing to do with the First Amendment. In fact, the ad campaign against Limbaugh is protected by the First Amendment, just as Limbaugh's comments about Fluke were.

The First Amendment protects individuals against suppression of free speech by the government. Only the government can actually force you not to say or do something. Only the government can forcibly "censor," in the way that the word is being used in this context.

Media Matters is actually pursuing a quite libertarian course of action to achieve their goal. They are spending their own money to run ads to persuade advertisers and radio stations to stop buying Limbaugh's product. There is no substantive difference between this and Apple running ads to persuade customers to stop buying PC's. There is no protection against this activity in the First Amendment.

The distinction that conservatives are missing here is between voluntary action and force. Progressives make this same mistake all of the time, but not in this case. There is no question of rights here. Media Matters is fully within its rights to run ad campaigns against Limbaugh. They are exercising their right to free speech.

Certainly, Limbaugh's allies are fully within their rights to come out publicly against Media Matters. They can run their own ads to persuade donors to stop contributing to the organization. None of this is very productive use of capital, but it's their money in both cases. Conservatives are also free to cry "censorship" and "First Amendment" if they want to, but they're wrong when they do.

If Media Matters appealed to the government to bring legal action against Limbaugh, I'd be right by his side fighting with him. He had every right to make the comments he did about Fluke, as distasteful as I might find them. Likewise would I oppose any attempt by Media Matters to lobby for more political correctness to be written into law. Our natural right to free speech is already trampled by existing laws.

However, as long as Media Matters uses its own money to persuade advertisers not to buy Limbaugh's product, then I'll defend their right to do so, whether I agree with them or not. Crying "censorship" and invoking the First Amendment implies that the government should step in and stop them. Conservatives should think about what they're really asking for.