July 28, 2009

Bill O'Reilly seems to have a little trouble understanding how the First Amendment works.

Free-speech rights mean the government can't stop citizens from saying things it doesn't like. Every citizen has that right.

But having a radio show or a network anchor's job is not a right. It's a privilege, one that people work very hard to achieve, and only a relative handful actually get. Who gets the privilege is decided by people holding the media pursestrings.

Nonetheless, O'Reilly seemed to think last night on his Fox News show that the Southern Poverty Law Center not only was "overreacting" to Lou Dobbs' promotion of the "Birther" conspiracy theories, but that they were attacking Dobbs' First Amendment rights in demanding that CNN remove him. He had on the SPLC's Richard Cohen to discuss it:

O'Reilly: Look, I still disagree with you calling for his head. I don't mind you coming out and saying you disagree with him, that it's totally absurd, it's wrong to exploit it, he's playing upon fears, there might be a racial component, although I don't think Lou Dobbs is a racist at all -- ah --

Cohen: When's enough, Bill? When's enough, enough? I mean, Lou's been doing this for years.

O'Reilly: It's never enough, enough. And in a free-speech society, Mr. Cohen, it's never enough's enough. Freedom of speech allows you to go up to the line without -- if Lou Dobbs was causing danger to someone, then you would be legitimate in calling for his firing. But he is not. All he's doing is bloviating. It's just bloviating.

O'Reilly's confused. If Lou Dobbs were indeed endangering someone -- one of several points at which the First Amendment does not protect speech -- then the authorities would be justified in shutting him down.

We citizens, however, have the right to demand that CNN take Dobbs off the air at any time, given that his position as an anchor there is purely at the pleasure of CNN executives and is not a matter of his right to free speech. No one is saying Dobbs can't go stand on a street corner and hand out pamphlets like the rest of his Birther friends do. They're just saying he hasn't the right to abuse his position as a major anchor at one of the cable networks by spreading false information and right-wing hatemongering.

Though certainly, one can see why O'Reilly might be touchy about that subject.

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