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Muzzling Dr. Laura

Gays and lesbians are trying to keep a new TV show off the air because its host has called them "deviants.'' Are they engaging in censorship - or citizenship?

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 7, 2000


It's a concept so absurd, when I first heard it, I thought someone was telling a joke.

Some people think Dr. Laura Schlessinger is in danger of being censored.

Censored?

Thanks to her highly rated syndicated radio talk show, Schlessinger speaks to 18-million listeners a week, has had four books on the New York Times bestseller list and has been interviewed everywhere from Larry King Live to Oprah.

If that's censorship, then censor me.

So why are some people using the c-word? Because gay and lesbian activists are trying to stop the airing of the syndicated TV show Dr. Laura, debuting Monday on television screens nationwide (including area ABC affiliate WFTS-Ch. 28).

Incensed by Schlessinger's insistence that homosexuality is a "deviant" behavior resulting from "biological errors," gays and lesbians have decided to hit the high-and-mighty Schlessinger where it hurts.

In the sponsors.

By writing, calling and posting information on their Web site, http://StopDrLaura.com, the protesters say they have persuaded at least 25 sponsors -- including Radio Shack, Motel 6, Econo Lodge, Sears, Priceline.com and Procter & Gamble -- to pull ads from her syndicated TV and/or radio shows.

All this, some deep thinkers say, amounts to censorship. And if it can happen to Dr. Laura, they say, it won't be long before someone else targets easily marginalized minority groups -- like, say, gay and lesbian people.

"Many Americans have forgotten that the basis of all our rights is the freedom to speak," columnist Nat Hentoff wrote in an Aug. 28 column published by the St. Petersburg Times, decrying the effort to eliminate Schlessinger's TV show. "When speech is entirely silenced, we subvert the most fundamental essence of our heritage."

But I can't help thinking: Isn't this how the system is supposed to work?

If you see something you don't like on TV, isn't it your right to express your opinion to anyone you want, including the show's sponsors?

And if you're persuasive enough, won't that mean the TV show eventually goes away?

Sandra Chance, an associate professor of media law and director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, thinks so.

"If you have a better idea and people stop listening to someone else, that's what happens in a free marketplace of ideas," she says, noting that only the government can truly censor anyone -- by passing a law or code to restrict public speech.

"Protesting is one of the traditional ways that citizens express their opinions," she adds. "Both sides are entitled to express their side and convince people they're right. Whoever is the most successful, that idea will prevail."

Part of the battle may come to the Tampa Bay area. Tampa activist R. "Zeke" Fread, who is gay, hopes to gather a crowd of activists at WFTS's Tampa studios Saturday, joining a nationwide schedule of protests before Schlessinger's TV series debut.

He's unsure how many people will actually show up -- "I'm getting a response, but nobody's committing to anything," he says. But Fread, who joined the anti-Schlessinger campaign after hearing her tell a teenage caller his homosexual urges can be "fixed," remains committed to keeping the TV program off the air. (Officials at WFTS say they have received fewer complaints than expected, given the national controversy.)

"My concern more than anything is the people who are looking for the slightest (reason) to be pushed (into) going out and hurting somebody," says Fread, 48, who has posted fliers, sent out e-mails and created his own Web page (http://home.gay.com/zeke2u/stopdrlauratampaprotestpage.html) to publicize the Saturday action. "I've been beat up twice -- once, just walking out of a bar. You think, "How could somebody possibly get in that frame of mind?' Then, you hear people like her, and you know."

One of those crying censorship is David Caton, who has some protest experience of his own.

As president of the Florida Family Association, Caton has contacted sponsors of The Howard Stern Radio Show (actually, it's a syndicated TV show) and Bubba the Love Sponge's morning program on WXTB-FM 97.9 (98Rock). He's urged advertisers to withdraw support for programs he considers offensive, helping persuade a local station to drop Stern's show and prompting the FCC to levy thousands of dollars in fines against WXTB.

But Caton, who has also aggressively opposed gay rights groups and believes homosexuality is immoral, sees no parallel between his methods and those of activists like Fread.

"We focus on programming that, for the most part, would violate (government) codes of obscenity," he says. "The speech that Dr. Laura presents is legally protected speech. To advocate the suppression of that is as close to censorship as you can get."

What's surprising is that some established gay rights groups aren't supporting the protests in a big way, either.

Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, a statewide activist group for gay and lesbian rights based in Tampa, seems only vaguely supportive when asked if trying to eliminate Schlessinger's TV show is the best move.

Even though Equality Florida is spreading the word about the Saturday protest, Smith says her group is more focused on the approaching elections than any TV show. Besides, she says, Tampa's own AM radio stations harbor anti-gay attitudes worse than Schlessinger's.

"We certainly believe that you fight hate speech with more speech ... but it becomes more difficult when the issue moves to the public airwaves," Smith says. "Instead of (featuring) a collection of different voices ... AM radio in this market is dominated by one voice, and it's fairly homophobic. That speech definitely needs to be challenged."

This critic's only problem with the Schlessinger protests is simple: protesting a show before you've actually seen it doesn't seem fair or wise.

A press packet indicates Schlessinger will offer an Oprah-style show with an audience, in-studio guests and experts discussing a single theme. Among the topics planned for the first week: "When is an Affair an Affair?" and "Dr. Laura's Moral Marathon" (advising guests on moral solutions to ethical dilemmas) as well as "Lewd Libraries" (tips on keeping children safe from smut at the local library).

But journalists haven't seen the show because Schlessinger's representatives won't provide videotapes for review. That comes as no surprise, considering Dr. Laura sidestepped a press conference before the nation's TV writers in July and hasn't granted many recent interviews.

It seems the woman who has built a career on criticizing others can't take much criticism herself.

"(We) are producing proactive television with the goal of inspiring viewers to take back control of their own lives and families," reads a quote in Paramount's press materials from Schlessinger, a licensed family therapist whose degree is in physiology, not psychology. "We are showing them, step by step, how to influence the media, their schools, their libraries (and) their communities ... to benefit families and children."

Though Paramount officials have offered assurances that Schlessinger won't express anti-gay statements on TV, Robin Tyler, national protest coordinator for StopDrLaura.com, isn't buying it: "If (former Klan leader) David Duke were to do a cooking show and promised not to say anything about race, would any network still give him a show?" she asks. "We have a right to demand corporate responsibility to stop bigotry."

Ironically, all this noise could still work to Schlessinger's advantage, helping her draw a crowd even if she proves to be as mediocre as all the Rolondas, Tempestts and Carnies who have gone before.

Worse, she has become a martyr for all those who can believe this one-woman media machine somehow represents a marginalized minority: right-wing moral crusaders advocating conservative values (because Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy and Oliver North just can't get the job done by themselves).

"People will learn more about Dr. Laura and they may agree with her or find reasons not to agree with her," says the University of Florida's Chance. "Putting our heads in the sand about these issues has never been effective. At least, by engaging in dialogue, we may all learn something."

Beyond her position on homosexuality (she says gays and lesbians are more likely to be pedophiles, for example), Schlessinger's close-minded attitudes about mixed-religion marriages, religious values and sex often bring erratic on-air advice.

One minute, she offers incisive comments on a relationship. The next, she insists marriage between a Catholic and Jew is doomed to failure.

In the end, we may have to trust that people will do the right thing if Schlessinger starts spouting her anti-gay rhetoric on TV. Just change the channel.

To reach Eric Deggans call (727) 893-8521, e-mail deggans@sptimes.com or see the St. Petersburg Times Web site at http://www.sptimes.com.

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