THE DEBATE OVER Dr. Laura Schlessinger heated up in Seattle a few weeks ago when more than 400 protesters gathered outside of KING Broadcasting demanding

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Free speech or hate speech?

Dr. Laura's fans and critics fight it out locally and nationally.

THE DEBATE OVER Dr. Laura Schlessinger heated up in Seattle a few weeks ago when more than 400 protesters gathered outside of KING Broadcasting demanding that station manager Glenn Wright pull the plug on plans to air the advice monger's television show this fall.

Schlessinger is already queen of the radio airwaves: She holds forth on a call-in show of no-holds-barred advice on 400 radio stations in the US and Canada. Paramount intends to launch a daytime, hour-long Schlessinger TV show in September, but the plan has been met with protests across the country regarding Dr. Laura's views on homosexuality. Schlessinger has characterized gays and lesbians as a "biological faux pas," "aberrant," "disordered," and "dysfunctional," and has dubbed homosexual practices "deviant."

Locally, KING 5 is holding steady to its commitment to broadcast the show. But the station assured protesters that Schlessinger will be carefully monitored and pulled the moment she lashes out against sexual minorities.

Critics of Stop Dr. Laura, the cyber-activist group spearheading the effort to cancel the program, argue that Schlessinger's freedom of speech is being held hostage to the gay agenda. "It infuriates me to know that homosexuals are making an uproar about the show and that some advertisers are pulling away," writes Jennifer Bishop in a letter to Seattle Weekly. "Freedom of speech is what brought the homosexual community to where they are today." This sentiment was echoed in a recent column by Richard Roeper in The Chicago Sun-Times. "It seems hypocritical to say 'We're here, we're queer, get used to it!' and to follow that with 'She's there, we're scared, so muzzle her!'"

But it's not just the gay and lesbian community who feels Schlessinger is out of line. The Anti-Defamation League, a group that fights bigotry, racism, and anti-Semitism, issued a statement expressing concern that "others might use [Schlessinger] to justify acts of violence and discrimination against lesbians and gays."

Advertisers are also pulling out left and right. United Airlines said it would not advertise on the television show as planned and would forbid advertisements for the Dr. Laura show in its magazine, Hemisphere. American Express, AT&T, Xerox, and Toys "R" Us have also withdrawn their support. Proctor & Gamble, Schlessinger's largest advertiser, announced that it, too, was bailing on the radio show and the forthcoming television show—a move that spawned a call for boycotts among conservative Christians.

Enter arch-homophobe Reverend Fred Phelps, the man who brought 'God Hates Fags' signs to the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay man murdered in Wyoming. Phelps declared the Proctor & Gamble logo "an everlasting symbol of sodomite shame," and announced plans to boycott and protest "those pimps and enablers for perverts and fags."

Most arguments against the gay and lesbian protests are more subtle. One Dr. Laura fan, Roger, who requested that his last name not be used, comments, "Keeping Dr. Laura off of TV because you don't like what she says [violates] free speech." Instead he suggests gays and lesbians, "ask for equal time," noting "there are plenty of other avenues to voice their opinion. Free speech is not defined as keeping one party from expressing their view in the media because you don't like it."

Schlessinger's critics disagree. "The First Amendment does not entitle her to a television program," said Romaine Patterson, Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Regional Media Manager. "She has every right to her religious convictions and her free speech. The question here is, 'Does the law entitle her to media access?' No."

The American Civil Liberties Union, a bastion of constitutional protection, agrees. "When Paramount decides that it wants to put on Dr. Laura or doesn't want to put on Dr. Laura, the government is not involved. And therefore the First Amendment and the freedom of speech, the legal freedom of speech protections, don't apply," said the ACLU's Peter Eliasberg on ABC's World News Tonight.

Every minority has had to walk a fine line between using free speech to further their movement and asking that speech hurtful to members of a minority group be stopped.

"Homosexuality is the last accepted form of bigotry in this country," says Brian Goldberg, ADL Regional Director. "It's still acceptable for leaders in the community to bash homosexuality and get away with it."

Hate speech is not the same as disagreeing with a minority group's public policy stand or political tactics. Rather, hate speech involves portraying a group of people as less than human. For gays and lesbians, hate speech like Schlessinger's has contributed to a climate where they are abandoned by their families, forsaken by their coworkers, scorned by their neighbors, and abused, beaten, and killed by people who are often total strangers. This is why Dr. Laura is having a galvanizing effect on the gay community, which hasn't mobilized around a media personality since orange juice queen Anita Bryant's campaign against gays and lesbians in the 1970s.

"It's been a long time since we've seen the gay community come together," says Romaine Patterson, who spoke at the Seattle protest. "This issue will be bringing people together and put a fire under the gay community."

 
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