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DePetro Controversy Sparks First Amendment Debate

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


The battle being waged between John DePetro and opponents is now wading into First Amendment waters - and a local free speech scholar has said that while the comments made by the embroiled radio host might border on the definition of inflammatory speech, they have no place on public airwaves.

"As a first amendment scholar, I certainly would protect anyone's right to free speech. Our right to speak freely its what buttresses our democracy," said Dr. Paola Prado, Assistant Professor of Communication at Roger Williams University. "On another level, the world has changed. This kind of misogyny has no place in a progressive society, and an economy where women are an integral part of making our country move forward for our joint prosperity."

Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi, who earlier this year wrote an expose on Rhode Island pension politics, told GoLocal, "By the way -- and I say this as a media person who uses inflammatory language -- calling working women whores and expecting to keep your corporate sponsors is pretty silly. That's not a speech issue, it's a dumbness issue."

While the pressure continues to mount from elected officials, unions, and members of the general public to boycott WPRO for comments made by DePetro back in September, supporters of the embattled talk show host -- who has not been on the radio since opposition heated up in recent weeks -- are striking back with their own effort to stop DePetro from being "silenced by politicians and unions."

The change.org petition started by "RI Citizens for Free Speech", writes that DePetro is "under attack by a paid organized union smear campaign designed to silence his vocal criticism. Do not allow politicians and unions to suppress free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment! We will not tolerate the sponsorship of the callers or the host of the John DePetro Show!"

First Amendment Center -- on the Record

GoLocal spoke with Ken Paulson, President of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and former editor-in-chief of USA TODAY, who says that the boycott being waged by Rhode Island elected officials of WPRO is not a violation of the talk show host's -- or station's -- First Amendment rights.

"As long as the officials are making their remarks in the position of private citizens -- even if the Governor says he's not going on the show or station, that's OK," said Paulson. "If the elected official tried to get the station's license pulled, that would be a violation of the First Amendment."

Paulson, who currently serves as the Dean of the College of Mass Communications at Middle Tennessee University, started the national first amendment campaign "1 for All" in 2010.

"This is not an unusual story," said Paulson of the DePetro/WPRO situation. "The events occurring in Rhode Island are really classic examples of when someone says something dumb or intemperate -- it's right out of the "outrage handbook". Someone says something outrageous, or horrifying -- and others demand punishment. Those calling for a boycott are exercising their First Amendment rights as well. And part and parcel in these instances is a call to boycott advertisers."

Paulson addressed the effort of the "For Our Daughters" campaign, which as of Tuesday had over 5,700 signatures asking Alex and Ani to stop advertising with WPRO, as well as dozens of elected officials pledging not to appear on WPRO until they "end their relationship with DePetro."

"There's a learning moment -- one of the things I always point out is the best remedy for offensive speech is speech of your own." said Paulson. "When people speak out and express their outrage, that's healthy for a democracy. What's going on in Rhode Island is perfectly appropriate and enhances the marketplace of ideas."

Paulson, however, hedged on what he saw as the efficacy of boycotts. "When people try to punish people economically -- boycotts are perfectly permissible ways to express yourself, and there's a long tradition. Boycotts are common, but they rarely work. They tend to chill speech."

"Where it gets interesting is when things heat up, the most popular talk show hosts with the largest audiences typically weather the storm. Look at Rush Limbaugh, and the campaigns to unseat him. The bottom line is the bottom line," said Paulson. "If the station is making money, they'll intend to keep him."

Broadcast Media -- and the Law

Dr. Prado, who teaches courses in journalism, medial law, and digital media production at Roger Williams, touched up on the history of broadcast radio -- and where it stands today.

"There's been a parting of the waters in terms of our understanding of media, which I see in the classroom," said Prado. "I find that students in their early 20s can't differentiate between broadcast, and cable and satellite."

Prado continued, "There is basic principle of the First Amendment that allows for strong differentiation between the two categories, specifically how we use public airwaves. It's been 100 years since the Radio Act, which mandated that all radio stations in the United States be licensed by the federal government, which took the role as a trustee of this public good. Airwaves are ours."

"I love the work that WPRO does in general -- I'm a big advocate of local radio, I see incredible value of local content," said Prado. "I hope WPRO does right by its listeners, and I certainly expect my elected officials to do the right thing."

However, Prado further explained that she wouldn't necessarily support the boycott. "I think WPRO is a good station. What I would like to see is the elected officials call in to remind the station that the airwaves are a public trust and the public good belongs to all residents, not just males."

Taibbi, who took a close look at unions and elected officials in his Rolling Stone piece, "Looting the Pension Funds," defended the actions of the union involvement in the DePetro boycott.

"The whole purpose of unions is to give political power to people who have numbers but maybe not money or influence. If they choose to use that organization to go after someone in the media they see as being harmful to their interests, that's totally legitimate. If unions aren't there to protect their own, what are they there for?"


Related Slideshow: Infamous Talk Radio Controversies

Prev Next

Arbitron Ratings Scandal

In 2008, radio host John DePetro found himself in the midst of a ratings controversy.  The Boston Herald reported,

The briefly stellar ratings of controversy-dogged-talkmeister John DePetro’s Providence radio show tanked yesterday after a whiff of scandal forced Arbitron to reissue its spring survey of listener-dial habits.

In the 6 to 10 a.m. weekday slot occupied by the self-proclaimed “Independent Man” on WPRO-AM (630), “the reissue ranked WPRO at number nine” among valued 25- to 54-year-old listeners, “down from the number four rank in the original release,” program manager Paul Giammarco and station market manager Barbara Haynes announced in a joint statement.

Prev Next

Candidate Name-Calling

DePetro was fired from Boston radio station WRKO in 2006 for calling then-gubernatorial Rainbow Party candidate Grace Ross a "fat lesbian." 

Prev Next

Office Scuffle

The Providence Journal's Mike Stanton reported on an altercation in 2009 between DePetro and radio host Ron St. Pierre.

DePetro said he was hit -- and scratched -- in the eye with a balled up paper with a staple thrown at him by St. Pierre.  

Prev Next

Buddy's Return - to Radio


After five years in prison for racketeering conspiracy from 2002 to 2007, former Mayor of Providence Buddy Cianci returned to the public eye with a radio show on WPRO.  

While controversial, Cianci's continued popularity has people wondering if Buddy might just make another run for Mayor in 2014.  

Prev Next

Chafee's Talk Radio Ban

Upon taking office in 2011, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee announced that he would not appear on talk radio shows and barred state employees in agencies and departments that report to him from doing the same during work hours.  

Governor Chafee is among the elected officials who have signed the "For Our Daughters" pledge.  

Prev Next

Dennis and Callahan

WEEI sports radio hosts John Dennis and Gerry Callahan were suspended in 2003 when they referred to an escaped gorilla as a "Metco gorilla" waiting for a bus to Lexington -- with Metco being bus program that buses inner-city students to suburban schools.

Boston's http://www.wcvb.com/Radio-Station-Gorilla-Remarks-Spur-Advertiser-Concerns/-/9849586/11281756/-/5lg3o9z/-/index.html#ixzz2nbPAwzd2" target="_blank">WCVB reported that advertisers Dunkin' Donuts and Blue Cross pulled back station support in light of the incident.  

Prev Next

Severin Suspended

WTKK's Jay Severin was fired for making comments about sleeping with female employees over the years.  

Radio Ink reported on Greater Media's reaction to the incident.  

"Greater Media today ended its relationship with Jay Severin. Our company has always encouraged a free and open dialogue on a variety of issues and topics, and we will continue to be guided by that principle. But we also demand that our on-air talent maintain an appropriate level of civility, and adhere to a standard that respects our listeners and the public at large.

Prev Next

Imus' Racial Remarks

in 2007, nationally syndicated talk show host Don Imus called Rutgers women's basketball players "nappy-headed hos."  Imus was suspended -- then fired -- by CBS Radio.  

Five years later, Imus was back on the national radio circuit, as reported by New Jersey.com

Prev Next

Rush Limbaugh

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh is no stranger to controversy; his latest remarks prompted the Democratic National Committee to call on Republican leaders to boycott the Daily Caller, which defended Limbaugh's remarks in an article entitled, "Liberals want to stop men from checking out women." 


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Liberals, including the union hack lemmings around here, are all for the First Amendment as long as the speech doesn't go against their agenda. I think the First Amendment is secondary to both the union hacks and the private sector company, money is what matters. The unions don't like any anti union talk, people may get informed, that's dangerous to unions. WPRO needs ad revenue, much of which comes from popular radio shows. Depetro is on the beach while the company weighs the dollars and cents of the whole thing.

Comment #1 by David Beagle on 2013 12 18

union fascism has raised its ugly head and the bully culture of unions is bolstered by many politicians that kowtow to them.When the unions cry those weak politicians are right there with a box of Kleenex!..Unions can say whatever they want,intimidate and hate as much as they want and and nobody says boo.

Comment #2 by LENNY BRUCE on 2013 12 18

DePetro says something stupid on the Radio and some people take it as Gospel,Depetro is a good reason to let the radio stay on the shelf and collect DUST!

Comment #3 by Joe McCauley on 2013 12 18

People who are opposed to Depetro's words have every right to respond with words of their own. That's the essence of free speech: an exchange of ideas and opinions. If we all agreed on everything, then free speech wouldn't be necessary.

Depetro pisses me off sometimes, but I enjoy listening to him, and I hope they don't fire him. His righteous indignation is usually well-placed. But it's possible to be righteously indignant without characterizing a group of women he has never met as whores. He deserves all of the condemnation that he's receiving.

Comment #4 by John Onamas on 2013 12 18

Depetro has only himself to blame. He made a group as unsympathetic as public unions seem like victims. What he said was dumb. But don't be naive enough to believe that their virtue has somehow been damaged. This is politics pure and simple. He gave his enemy an opening and they're taking it.

Comment #5 by Redd Ratt on 2013 12 18

If Dr. Prado is a first amendment scholar why is she not defending Depetro? Any 1st Amendment scholar knows that the amendment is in place to defend speech that most people may find offensive. Flowery speech does not need protection. Consider yourself schooled 'scholar'.

Comment #6 by Dave Barry on 2013 12 18

1st Amendment my a--. Depetro is and always has been an a-hole on the radio. The jerk needs to go !!!

Comment #7 by Mark St. Pierre on 2013 12 18

Have any of you morons actually even read the first amendment???

It’s about what GOVERNMENT can’t do to suppress free speech. Not what private organizations do or what individuals do to react to any speech. I can tell you to shut up or get you fired for saying something stupid and you can do the same to me; it has NOTHING to do with the first amendment.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”


A**holes have the right to be racist and misogynist, and use their voice to say racist and misogynist things, other a**holes have the right to use their voices to shut that other a**hole up.
End of story

Comment #8 by Joe Shmoe on 2013 12 18

Unions doing what they do best; threaten people who disagree with them.
DePetro was way off base in his choice of words. However, I don't believe it calls for his termination.

Frankly, he ticks me off quite often with his demeaning and sarcastic attitude. That may be his way of generating controversy and, ultimately, callers. But he also raises some very valid points on many important issues. One has to wonder what would happen in RI if talk radio wasn't around to expose some of the "BS" that takes place.
God knows the ProJo is totally useless.
That being said, it's up to WPRO to decide his future at the station.

Comment #9 by Walter Miller on 2013 12 18

Well said Joe Shmoe.

Comment #10 by Wuggly Ump on 2013 12 18

unions don't want people looking behind the wizard's curtain.

Comment #11 by Odd Job on 2013 12 18

How is this a First Amendment issue? Has he been placed in jail for what he said? Is he being caned and crucified in the streets? No? Then what are you people talking about? If I go to my company and sit in a meeting and say that some other people in the building are whores, should I expect to have no fallout from that? If he has done something to hurt his companies reputation, or their profits, they are within their right to do so. Are you trying to place more regulations on businesses? Isn;t this what a union would do? Force a business to keep an employee that has underperformed or caused problems at work? You people are the biggest hypocrites and you don't even recognize it. Can I tell my boss to go eff himself because I have the right to free speech? Of course I can. I won't go to jail for it, but there will be repercussions for my actions. It's the same for DePetro.

Comment #12 by Phil Paulson on 2013 12 18

I am surprised that no one has become aware of the cheap political stunt that our Democratic politicians have pulled. They are all jumping up and down, saying "I won't appear on De Petro's show," while, really, when WAS the last time that the appeared on De Petro's show? More cheap headlines for Fox, Weldon, and Langevin. Gina Raimondo and the Republicans actually did appear on his show, so I am exempting them.

Comment #13 by Michael Trenn on 2013 12 19

I forgot to include Paiva-Weed. More cheap, undeserved headlines for her. This whole thing is kind of like the Legislative Grants; they use our money to aggrandize themselves. And Mr.Paulson: the First Amendment situation is that elected representatives of the Government are trying to direct the "repercussions" that De Petro gets for his misogynistic comments. That should chill your blood. Unless, of course, you are a Progressive.

Comment #14 by Michael Trenn on 2013 12 19

Defrauding Arbitron seems to pay well though most RIers would go to jail for that.

Comment #15 by Jim D on 2013 12 19

Have you listened to Howard Stern? Come on. Let the radio people say whatever they want on the air. If you don't like it, turn the channel. It's pretty easy to do. We are not talking a campaign of hate speech on WPRO. They guy used a few inappropriate words. Big deal. What a bunch of crybabies in this state. Howard Stern would have a midget spank you on the air, and it would be funny.

Comment #16 by Katy Sloop on 2013 12 19

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