Free speech isn't free, even for the Dixie Chicks

Jacob Sullum

7/11/2003 12:00:00 AM - Jacob Sullum

For those who wondered how Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., could sponsor a "campaign finance reform" law that restricts political speech, the answer became clear during a hearing he chaired the other day: McCain has never read the First Amendment.

How else to explain the senator's contention that radio stations violate the First Amendment when they decline to play the music of performers who offend their listeners? According to McCain, this threat to freedom of speech is a "strong argument" for limiting "media concentration" -- in this case, for compelling big radio chains to sell some of their stations.

As you may have guessed, the focus of this Senate Commerce Committee hearing was the Dixie Chicks, the country music performers from Texas who caught flak last spring for remarks about President Bush and the war in Iraq. At a concert in London, lead singer Natalie Maines told the audience, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." She later apologized for being disrespectful but reiterated her doubts about the war.

The apology didn't help. As Lewis Dickey, CEO of the 270-station Cumulus Broadcasting group, recalled during the hearing, "There was a groundswell of negative reaction by our listeners against the band. We had never seen anything like it before. Calls were coming in . . . from our individual program directors across the country, saying there was a hue and cry from our listeners regarding those remarks that was unprecedented."

Cumulus responded by barring Dixie Chicks songs from its 50 or so country music stations for a month. "At the same time," Dickey noted, "our Top 40 radio stations in the same markets . . . continued to play the Dixie Chicks," because "we didn't have the hue and cry from our listeners."

Dickey concluded that continuing to play the Dixie Chicks on the chain's country stations would alienate listeners and ultimately cost Cumulus money. I'm not sure the 30-day ban was a smart business move, but there's no question the decision was the company's to make.

No question, that is, except in the minds of John McCain and people who share his confusion. McCain called the Dixie Chicks moratorium "an incredible, incredible act," explaining: "I was . . . as offended as anyone by the statement of the Dixie Chicks. But to restrain their trade because they exercised their right of free speech to me is remarkable."

Not just incredible and remarkable, McCain told Dickey, but unconstitutional: "Because if someone else in another format offends you, and there's a huge hue and cry, and you decide to censor those people, my friend, the erosion of the First Amendment in the United States of America is in progress."

If anything qualifies as incredible, it's McCain's understanding of the Constitution. The First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech." It does not impose any obligations on radio stations.

McCain was not the only senator at the hearing who had trouble telling the difference between a private business decision and government censorship. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., likened Dixie Chicks boycotters to Nazi book burners and "communist dictators" who "strip out all the works of art that they don't agree with."

In case that was not enough to scare you, both McCain and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., summoned up the most nightmarish scenario they could imagine if, heaven forbid, radio stations started routinely responding to the demands of their listeners: What if a senator said something offensive, and a chain of radio stations decided to keep him off the air for a month?

Simon Renshaw, the Dixie Chicks' manager, conceded that "the (radio) networks enjoy the same First Amendment rights as my clients." Those rights include the freedom to choose the music they play. Yet Renshaw insisted it was inappropriate to consider politics in writing playlists because doing so would "undermine free speech."

Like McCain, Boxer and Dorgan, Renshaw seems to think the right to free speech means the right to say what you want not only without being punished by the government but without paying any cost at all. He's wrong.

Just ask Michael Savage, whose MSNBC talk show was recently canceled after he made some nasty remarks to a gay radio caller, or Dr. Laura, who suffered a similar fate because of her statements about homosexuality. Both were exercising their freedom of speech, but so were the critics who wanted them off the air.