Imus Debacle Raises Bigger Issue of Our Coarse Culture

Who’s next?

Tom DeLay is after Rosie O’Donnell. Bob Cesca, on the Huffington Post, is after Bill O’Reilly. Everybody is after Rush.

Free speech anyone?

Our Founding Fathers had this idea that the marketplace of ideas works best when the answer to a wrong idea is a true one, and not a muzzle. Censorship is the evil to be avoided, more dangerous to a free society than offensive words.

Of course, the First Amendment applies only to state action. It doesn’t guarantee haters a microphone or a mouthpiece. It doesn’t prohibit broadcasters and news organizations from exercising responsibility in deciding who they put on, who they pay, who gets their audience. It doesn’t require networks to give a forum to those who preach hate, whether from the left or the right, whether it’s Ann Coulter or Cindy Sheehan.

But the line between public action and private action is not always a bright one. Why was Barack Obama calling for Imus’ firing? Why did Hillary post the Rutgers team on the home page of her Web site?

Why were the candidates and contenders all over this one like a wet blanket?

NBC and CBS didn’t just go off on their own and decide what to do about their money-making shock jock. Or, rather, when they did, in CBS’ case, they concluded that he shouldn’t be fired. So why the change in attitude?


Some of that pressure came from advertisers, who didn’t want to be viewed as sponsoring Imus. That’s the market. Money talks. Imus probably should have been spending more time apologizing to his advertisers than trying to make things right with the Rev. Al Sharpton.

But again, it wasn’t just advertisers operating in a vacuum, consulting their own consciences, deciding what speech they wanted to support and what they didn’t. The advertisers didn’t have problems with Imus until Sharpton and Obama and Hillary did.

With everyone looking over their shoulders, who is looking ahead?

Imus was fired not for an original comment, but for repeating a popular rap lyric. He was fired for referring to women the same way they are referred to in music, movies and popular culture, for using a phrase I won’t let my 14-year-old son use in front of me, but that I have no doubt gets plenty of use behind my back. He was fired because it was easier to do that than to confront the underlying problems of a culture that is so vulgar and so coarse that it seems almost impossible to find lines any more, let alone draw them convincingly. He was fired because it was easier than taking the heat.

Will firing Imus raise the level of discourse in America? Will it cause the rappers to think twice before demeaning women, the Imus imitators to go back to the drawing board, the second-tier clones of Sean and Rush to clean up their acts?

Not likely.

What is more likely is that activists on both sides will take Imus’ demise as a call to action and a road map for suppressing those they disagree with. What is more likely is that politicians will smell an issue with legs and try to ride it. What is more likely is that we will dig in on our separate sides, to get even or get ours, by getting theirs. What is more likely is not that we will end up with better speech, but just less free speech.

Sharpton, who came to public fame in the Tawana Brawley case, making racist charges that proved to be totally without foundation, has said that he views the Imus affair as the first step in a larger discussion of the permissible limits of public expression. Al and I have many of the same friends, and the same opponents, but here’s the difference. I don’t want Al telling them, or me, what we can and can’t say. I think we can win the argument, if we’re given the chance. It’s getting that chance that we should be fighting for, not getting rid of those we disagree with. Replacing Imus with Imus-lite is not nearly as great an accomplishment as it would have been to get more diverse voices on the air who could take on Bill and Imus and Rush and Sean. That’s how free speech works best.

Click here to read Susan's response to your e-mail.

Click here to link to Susan's new book, "Soulless."

Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for

Respond to the Writer