For years, I've warned conservatives about the bigoted rhetoric and dubious analysis that Rush Limbaugh offers on his radio program. There is no bigger critic of the man than me. I am nevertheless appalled by the prominent liberals who want the state to use its coercive power to silence him. Writing at CNN.com, Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan, and Gloria Steinem actually compare the talk radio host to Joseph Goebbels before arguing that if Clear Channel won't drop him, the FCC should throw him off the air because his broadcasts aren't in the public interest. In a separate effort, celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred has sent the Palm Beach County state attorney a letter urging that office to prosecute Limbaugh under an antiquated law that treats as a misdemeanor speaking about a woman and "falsely and maliciously imputing to her a want of chastity."
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Neither effort is likely to succeed. And, thank goodness. The precedents these women would set are orders of magnitude more damaging than any offensive remark that Limbaugh has uttered. The U.S. 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 the Right to use speech codes as a cudgel against opponents. And as David Bernstein long ago observed in a different context:
It is, finally, immoral to urge the state to silence or even arrest someone because his or her words are offensive, an ultimately subjective standard that everyone arguably transgresses against on occasion.
The behavior of Allred, Steinem, Fonda, and Morgan in this case reminds me of what Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain were doing during the uproar over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque: shortsightedly urging government to intervene, on flimsy pretenses, where it doesn't belong. Private citizens are perfectly capable of registering their objections without government -- and have no right to demand assistance from government in stopping what merely offends them.