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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

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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.

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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." 

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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.  

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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.  

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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.  

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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.  

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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.

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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

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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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