Verizon, Can You Hear Us Now?


Looks like Verizon may have (finally!) woken up to the first amendment, a small victory for reproductive rights advocates. Though it took embarrassment on the front page of the New York Times to get it done, a frightening idea since political speech seems to be under attack – subtly and not-so-subtly – on multiple fronts.

Verizon's saga started yesterday when the New York Times reported that the mammoth phone company had muzzled political speech by rejecting NARAL Pro-Choice America's request to send text alerts on reproductive rights. Verizon, in its first shuffling response, explained that it had decided the entire issue was somehow off limits – too "controversial" and "unsavory." Initially, a Verizon spokesperson explained that the company wasn't taking sides in the abortion wars but rather wanted to silence all political speech related to the issue of reproductive rights, including both for and against. The Times reported that "a spokesman for Verizon said the decision turned on the subject matter of the messages and not on NARAL's position on abortion. "Our internal policy is in fact neutral on the position," the spokesman, Jeffrey Nelson, told the Times. "It is the topic itself" — abortion — "that has been on our list."

The reaction to this bizarre carve-out of the first amendment was definitively not shuffling. Indeed, in a small irony, the pro-choice pro-free speech forces turned its own text messaging service against it. In just two hours, the company received more than 20,000 text messages protesting its decision. By mid-day Verizon had regrouped. A new message emerged. Turned out – what do you know? – that, said the CEO, the company's initial decision was "an incorrect interpretation of a dusty internal policy." Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, soon had a fax on her desk from the Verizon CEO to that effect.

If only we could get the journalistic watchdogs on every pullback of political speech these days. The problem is that under the cover of "too controversial," or "not entertaining," or any number of silly categories, talk about reproductive rights is moved to the margins. The fact is, when it comes to the issues of abortion and family planning these days, those doing much of the censoring aren't choosing one side over another–they just are shutting down the whole debate.

The Jon Stewart Show, hallmark of liberal programming these days, wants to steer clear apparently. (It also apparently wants to steer clear of women, and women intellectuals in particular. So far this year, Jon has had ten women guests; eight were actresses.) The line from the Daily Show show is apparently that abortion isn't funny, as one producer put it. (And Iraq is, by contrast, hilarious!)

We may have a common ground issue here: the anti-abortion and pro-choice sides could unite in a effort to not be shut up by the mainstream media companies. I recently had a brush with political censorship by, of all groups, the American Political Science Association. The American Political Science Association, a membership organization of college professors of political science, rejected my request to rent their mailing list. I simply wanted to make political science professors aware of my book, How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America, and see if they might like to engage the debate by inviting me speak. The denial went like this:

APSA policy states that "materials cannot be used for politically or ideologically partisan purposes, and are subject to the approval of the executive director. The material in question here stretches the bounds of advocacy versus contribution to teaching and research.

I couldn't help but think that the author of a political book on any other subject would get a different reception from the American Political Science Association.

Silencing both sides of a debate is as insidious as silencing just one. It's not freedom of speech if whole issue categories areeliminated from the public discourse. The "controversial" and "unsavory" are the very subjects that, when spoken about, serve to remind us that freedom of speech still exists. At this most critical juncture in history for reproductive rights, you'd be surprised who ispressing the mute button on you.

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