Dr. Laura calls, free speech is on the line

Posted: Aug 14, 2000 12:00 AM
My home phone rang at 6:30 a.m. yesterday. Dr. Laura Schlessinger was on the line. For two days, I had been trying to reach the Hebrew Academy of San Francisco because her staff had told me that gay activists, offended by Schlessinger's take on homosexuality, had prompted Rabbi Pinchas Lipner to disinvite her from speaking at its annual International Conference on Jewish Medical Ethics in February. For two days, no one at the academy would return my calls. Schlessinger wanted to make sure that I stayed with the column. Later that morning, a woman at the academy -- she wouldn't give her name -- confirmed that Laura had been disinvited from the conference. "I think it had to do with gay issues," she said. The woman also said she had "no clue" about what happened, but denied Lipner was pressured. "Being Jewish, he doesn't want to upset anybody in the community. We're in San Francisco. He's got a lot of people to think about," she explained. Yet, sources with whom I spoke verified that pressure was applied to the academy. What I couldn't nail down was who was behind the pressure and how bad it got. What terrible things has Schlessinger done to deserve such persecution? A doctor in physiology, she has said that homosexuality is a "biological error" and "deviant." I strongly disagree, and wish Schlessinger were more gay-friendly, as she used to be. Still, the radio talk-show host doesn't advocate violence against gays. She urges parents to accept their gay children. She's not the hatemonger in this story. "Frankly I haven't said anything different than the pope has said," Schlessinger noted. Nor has she said anything that "(Al) Gore, (Joe) Lieberman, (Dick) Cheney and (George W.) Bush haven't said in terms of gay marriage." She is a target for saying things that many Americans think. A web site, stopdrlaura.com, encourages people to threaten sponsors with a boycott of their products, and lists corporate executives' phone numbers, but it doesn't include its own phone number. Figure the anti-Laurites don't want to be on the receiving end of their own tactics. That's understandable, as Schlessinger has lost a number of sponsors. John Aravosis, who started the web site, would not comment on what happened with the ethics conference. Asked about Schlessinger's pope remark, he answered, "I don't think I have to explain the difference between Dr. Laura and the pope." Let me explain it: The pope is a powerful man with lots of followers who could do to Aravosis what he does to Schlessinger -- and then, free speech advocates would cry censorship. She is a lone woman who can only hire security guards. She is easier to intimidate than the pope. None of the groups with which I spoke avowed any knowledge of pressure put on the academy. No surprise. It's hard to tout tolerance and gag dissent simultaneously. As Schlessinger sees it, "I need to be eliminated from the public scene one way or another." If zealots succeed in suppressing her views, who would dare repeat them? The academy had invited Schlessinger to speak before she became a gay pariah. Now, it has disinvited her. In the future, expect only committed anti-gay groups to dare to have her speak. Thus, they try to chase her into the (other) haters' arms. Consider the tactics the anonymous pressure-mongers use. Schlessinger noted that their message is, "You either do business our way, or you're history." This is no different than the Hollywood blacklist. She holds unpopular positions; censorious zealots keep her from speaking even on medical ethics. Yet, people who are horrified at the blacklist yawn as anonymous foes muzzle her. This time, they tell themselves, it's different.