On Censoring Rush Limbaugh

I support the right of the abortion protesters outside my clinic to make their cases. Every other Saturday morning, I wake up at 6:30am to walk women past them, talking softly and giving patients some of my patience in the face of surrounding ugliness, and this is my constitutional right as well. I deeply confirm what Justice Robert Jackson said in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943):

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.

It would be unamerican to deny anti-abortion protesters the ability to argue for an unconditional restriction of women’s legal right to privacy, to terminate their pregnancies without interference before 12 weeks and with minimal interference before 23, and against access to contraception.

A national commitment to free speech doesn’t matter if it only protects the pretty blandaries of small politicians and beauty pageant contestants. Its meat, its soul, comes out when a man like Rush Limbaugh calls a Georgetown law student a slut for testifying before Congress. Justice Jackson was concerned with officials prescribing what would be orthodox. When Gloria Steinem called for the FCC to ban Rush Limbaugh from the airwaves because he brings shame upon the heads of all open-minded people, she was asking an official to prescribe an orthodoxy.

This is unamerican. The government has no part in making content-based determinations about anyone’s right to speech (with the usual obscenity restrictions as a given). This is not to say I do not support the Flush Rush movement; I do. I believe the First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech but not a free platform.

I would make no constitutional bones if Rush Limbaugh was reduced to spitting his views his laptop, mixing his clips himself, and uploading his 3 hours a day onto YouTube for free viewing.

When I walked by the clinic today, the protesters shoved rubber fetuses in my face; I was walking with my husband and we had to stand between the protesters to wait for a light to change. I did not respond, though I have an equal right to speak my piece; I wanted to catch my bus and am secure enough in my beliefs I don’t need to test them against every mind I meet.

I don’t know how they would react if the tides of history turned, if I were standing for weeks protesting outside of a hospital, demanding women’s access to abortion. Holding up signs of dead women’s bodies; shouting about forced pregnancy; following doctors down the sidewalk, begging them to sign a petition to reinstate the right to choose.

I don’t know whether those women in those conservative dresses or those men in those hunting jackets would look at me and, though deploring my personal values, see in me a consecrated American value of free speech.

I can hope they would; and while I can, I can try to see the same in them.

Inspirational Quote:

“Free speech is not to be regulated like diseased cattle and impure butter. The audience that hissed yesterday may applaud today, even for the same performance.”–William O. Douglas


  1. I think Kristof said what i consider to be the definitive statement on the importance of Rush Limbaugh in the grand scheme of things. Kristof writes about the plight of women all over the world, and in this case he was writing about Backpage.com and their facilitation of Human Trafficking via their ads for prostitution:

    “About 100 advertisers have dropped Rush Limbaugh’s radio show because of his demeaning remarks about women. Isn’t it infinitely more insulting to provide a forum [like Backpage.com] for the sale of women and girls?”

    I am very much against what Mr Limbaugh said about that woman. But that woman has her freedom. I will continue to focus my energies on fighting Human Trafficking and helping to free Sara Kruzan.

  2. Well written, and I completely agree with your defense of free speech. I also understand your stance on abortion for forced pregnancies, though I have not yet determined where I stand on the broader issue.

    My point of contention is this: who is arguing to restrict access to contraception? From what I understand, anyone can purchase contraception over the counter, and insurance companies do not supply free contraception to men or to women. I don’t see any sexism in that system.

    The proposed new laws require insurance companies to supply women with contraception. Those who oppose that law get labeled with opposing women’s access to contraception. But that doesn’t make sense to me. If someone opposes a law requiring fast food restaurants to include toys with all happy meals, that doesn’t mean he or she opposes children’s access to toys. Why does everyone say that the opposition to the insurance company contraception mandate denies women access to contraception? I feel like I miss some important perspective on this, but I cannot figure it out.

    Either way, I enjoyed the post!

  3. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for commenting! There’s two parts to my answer. First, who is arguing that women and men should not have access to contraception? The USCCB for one:


    The USCCB also had a policy of refusing access to contraception to survivors of sex trafficking, as well as refusing them access to abortion:

    Succinct coverage of the case: http://www.religiondispatches.org/dispatches/sarahposner/5825/court_rules_religiously-based_restrictions_in_hhs_contracts_with_bishops_violate_establishment_clause/

    The actual decision (for law nerds): http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/usccb_decision.pdf (pdf)

    But this is all finicky legal stuff (which I enjoy, but is not everyone’s favorite). The short answer is: it is not the stated policy of any politician that I know of to ban contraception. But public policy is very rarely about banning things: it’s usually about incentivising or discouraging particular actions.

    The subtler question of who is trying to make it harder for women to get contraception, for men to get contraception, for teens to get contraception? The answer, in my opinion, is that many of the policies promoted by the right-wing of the Republican party are designed to discourage women from seeking birth control.

    They discourage BC by making it impossible to get without a prescription (unlike in many other countries), by making it more expensive by not considering it preventative medicine (as it truly has been for me my entire life–I’ve taken BC since I was 13 because of cramps waaaaaaay before I was sexually active), and finally, the GOP discourages women from using contraception by shaming us about it: calling 98% of sexually active women names, pretending like we aren’t the vast majority, perpetuating some really ugly stereotypes about sexually active women.

    Ok, so to the second part of my answer, to the question of how does the GOP stance that insurance companies should not have to cover contraception or not have to classify it as preventative count as them opposing contraception. This gets back to how I think public policy works and how insurance works. Public policy and insurance policy is about nudging people into doing what you want. When I was taking the pill (I have an IUD now), I spent $15 a month in co-pays on top of $15 a month in prescription painkillers for my cramps. Over 5 years, that meant I was spending around $1800 just on preventing ridiculously painful cramps, using BC. Now, there is nothing other than school, housing, or education that I have ever spent $1800 on.

    When I got an IUD, it was completely covered by my insurance. POP. No more $30 a month, no more pain-pills, no more scary mornings trying to remember what pills I took. Just a piece of plastic and peace of mind. My insurance company financially incentivized me getting an IUD over me taking the pill. My doctor encouraged me to get one, because she knew how awful my cramps were (if at this point you’re getting wigged out reading so much about my lady parts, you should be: the entire GOP excursion into policing my plumbing is a profound governmental intrusion).

    Ok, so given that public policy is the art of nudging people to behave in certain ways and given that insurance policies are also designed to do the same thing, when Congress got together with her constituents and lobbyists to decide what health care reform should be, they decided to define birth control (which 98% of sexually active women have used at least once and which many of us use for reasons other than avoiding being 23 and pregnant) as preventative medicine.

    Then the GOP had a choice of two stances: one, the public policy stance by which it encouraged women to do what we were already doing, ie, use birth control to control our destinies; or two, the public policy stance by which it discouraged women from doing what we were already doing, by keeping access to BC as tenuous as it has been or (in cases like the morning-after pill) making it harder.

    In summary: those who oppose classifying birth control as preventative medicine (and therefore as co-pay-less as annual testing) are choosing to discourage more women from choosing contraception using the public policy tools available to them.

    I would be happy to chat on about this more!

  4. Jessica,

    Thanks. I think I understand the issue better now.

    From a pragmatic perspective of one who realizes that the government promotes and discourages certain cultural issues, I agree with your original points. From a utopian perspective of one who thinks the government has no business promoting or discouraging cultural issues, I have to think a bit more.

    I do not understand how BC relates to preventative medicine. Preventative medicine, as I understand it, prevents some sort of illness or physical harm due to natural factors. Since voluntary sexual activity requires a choice, it does not satisfy the natural factors criteria.

    Does the government really have any business preventing or promoting consequences of our personal choices?

    In order to illustrate my point, consider a situation in which two people decide to box. One could argue that 98% of boxers use mouth guards, or would use mouth guards if available. Should the government mandate that insurance companies provide mouth guards to them? This does not fit the (perhaps flawed) natural factors criteria, since the boxers chose to box.

    That aside, I completely agree that BC to alleviate natural pain fits the criteria for preventative medicine. I also agree that any legislation discouraging access to BC is unconstitutional; we can only hope that our courts do not bend. I also have no problem with preventative BC as a personal investment (both for men and for women), but given my likely differing views on government intervention in social issues, I think our basic beliefs might conflict.

    I hope I have not offended you with any of my analogies or with any of my assumptions. Thank you for your explanations; it cleared up much of my confusion.

    (Also, how do you like CMU? I was accepted into a masters program for EE and have to decide very soon whether or not to enroll. The tuition costs and apparent lack of funding look quite daunting.)


  5. Hi Steve,

    So sorry this took me so long to respond–I hope you were able to make your decision without my input ( 😀 ). I’m glad we agree on so much. A lot of the reason I am pro-choice and support Obamacare is that I don’t believe the government should interfere in my private life except in those cases where society needs help to self-correct. I think the point of government is to help society be its best self: when our darker angels tell us to discriminate on the irrational basis of race, we look to government to give us a reason not to. When insurance companies refuse to cover what is preventative health care to 98% of women (I’ll get to that in a minute) because it would make costs go up (short term) and go down (long term), we look to government to give them a reason not to. This is a liberal and positive vision for government, and it’s cool if we don’t agree.

    Birth control is preventative medicine because being pregnant is not my default state. If I was always pregnant, and wanted a pill to no longer be pregnant, that’s not prevention. But if I am generally not pregnant (and I expect I will be not pregnant for at least 88 of my 90 years of life expectancy), then avoiding being pregnant is prevention. The entire argument that insurance companies shouldn’t cover things which we make choices about seems to imply that they shouldn’t cover breast exams (since there are any number of things I could choose to do to lower my likelihood of breast cancer which I am not doing and therefore need a doctor to check-up on me) or prostate exams (because, again, there are any number of things that you are choosing not to do to prevent prostate cancer in yourself, which if you were doing them, you would not need to see a doctor annually).

    The idea that having sex is such a big choice that it deserves a special lack of social support is profoundly sex negative; it treats sex as an aberration rather than an occurrence so common the survival of our species depends on it.

    All of that hyperbole aside, your distinction between the kinds of women who deserve to have their birth control classified as preventative (those of us with debilitating cramps) and those who don’t (those of us who have sex) requires a level of government intrusion into personal decision-making that I’m surprised you are comfortable with. It’s not my Senator, my Representative, or my President’s business why I have an IUD: the fact that I have it lowers the insurance costs of everyone on my plan because pregnant people are expensive. That reason, and that reason alone, is all my government needs to know to classify birth control as preventative. The rest of it is simply not their business.

    I hope I haven’t offended you with any of my comparisons, or the assumption that you’re cis-male, or that you wouldn’t like the government choosing whether your prostate exam was ok (because you aren’t having sex) or not ok (because you are). Thanks for your comment,


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