The Dixie Chicks: Freedom of Speech Issue? – Not!
By John D. Turner
30 Apr 2003

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. – U.S. Constitution, Amendment 1.

I have been kind of busy lately, as usual. And I will be the first to admit that I am not a big country music fan. I don’t even own a single Dixie Chick CD, nor have I ever had any particular desire to do so. Still, I am trying to recall exactly when Congress passed a law against ownership of Dixie Chick CDs or playing Dixie Chick songs in the wake of their ill-advised comments concerning George Bush at a recent concert in England.

They must have, though, as those on the Left, and the Chicks themselves keep saying that their free-speech rights have been abridged.

Free speech is mentioned in one place in the Constitution, the First Amendment. It states simply that Congress can pass no law abridging the freedom of speech. As far as I can tell, it does not obligate me to purchase or listen to Dixie Chick CDs, nor does it require radio stations to play them. This simply is not a free-speech issue.

Bruce Springsteen recently came to their defense, saying, “The Dixie Chicks have taken a big hit lately for exercising their basic right to express themselves. To me, they’re terrific American artists expressing American values by using their American right to free speech. For them to be banished wholesale from radio stations, and even entire radio networks, for speaking out is un-American.”

Fine. The Chicks are terrific. That still doesn’t obligate me to purchase or listen to their music, or for radio stations to play their songs.

I suspect that Bruce will continue to be a purchaser of Dixie Chicks songs in the future. And that’s fine, because this is America, and you can do that here. But Bruce makes an invalid assumption in his defense of free speech rights. It is an assumption that many on the left make with appalling regularity, particularly when it is their free-speech rights that they claim have been “trampled”. That assumption is that free speech means never having to accept any consequence or responsibility for what you say. Just say what you want and everyone just has to accept it; life goes on as usual. The fact of the matter is that some people may take offense at your viewpoint, and may act on that offense. And it is their “right” to do so if they so choose.

Radio stations operate under the free market system. They play the music people want to hear, because they want people to listen to their radio station rather than some one else’s. Their revenues are governed by the sale of advertising. The larger the audience, the more money they can get for advertising on their station. If large numbers of people call and say that they will change the station if, for example, a Dixie Chick song is played, the station will sit up and take notice. Radio stations (and TV stations as well) know that once a listener or viewer changes the channel, it may be a while before they change it back. Loss of market share equates to loss of revenue, and radio stations are out to make money like any other business. If radio stations in the United States were owned by the Government, Bruce and others on the left would have a valid case; taking the Chicks off the air would then be an abridgement of their first amendment rights. But this is the United States, not North Korea, or, until recently, Iraq, and the radio stations are in private, not governmental hands.

It is interesting that in 1992, President George H. W. Bush lost his re-election bid against the then little-known William Jefferson Clinton, in part, because it was perceived that he was “out of touch” with the rest of America. The news clip where Mr. Bush expressed amazement at a laser scanner at a supermarket was seized upon as an example of how little he knew about how the “common person” lived. Realistically, no one who actually pondered it for more than a moment or two would have expected that the President of the United States would show up at the local HEB (that’s a Texas thing) to buy his weekly groceries. Still, the clip was used effectively by the Democrats as a visceral example of how the “rich” Mr. Bush was so far removed from the world of “Joe six-pack”.

I submit that the Dixie Chicks suffer from the same malady. They obviously are out of touch with their core constituency as well; their audience.

The Chicks are country music singers. Their “core constituency”, those who buy their records, are not the same as those who purchase songs by Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Cher, or Joan Baez. Country music is arguably the last bastion of conservatism left in the entertainment industry. Country music lovers are some of the most patriotic flag wavers in the country. Most country music stations are located in the heartland of America. They are less popular on the right and left coast, particularly in places such as New York City or LA. (That’s not to say you can’t find one, just that they are less prevalent.) For the most part, they are at least middle of the road overall, and right of center on many issues.

If has simply said that she disagreed with the war and felt that the President was wrong in waging it, the uproar would probably have been minor. The fact that she felt the need to do so in a foreign country during time of war would be a definite strike against her, and there would have been repercussions, but probably not of the same magnitude. Had she done so here in the States, she would probably have been booed, but it probably would have been a minor event.

But no, her comment, made on stage before a foreign audience was “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” As someone who actually is from Texas, she certainly should have known better, and it is a certain indication that she has not only lost touch with her core constituency, but her roots as well. While I am sure there are a great many people in Texas who have issues one way or another with Mr. Bush (many of them in Austin), such a statement, particularly made in the venue it was made in, was certain to cause a massive uproar in Texas, if no where else. And, as a person living in South Central Texas, I can assure you that folks here, even those who don’t listen to country music (such as myself) were highly offended. Many even felt betrayed.

People who are offended tend to take action, if the option is open to them.

If I go to a car repair shop to have my car fixed, and they do a poor job, or do something to offend me personally, there is no constitutional right they have that requires me to patronize their business again. Not only that, but it is quite likely that I will share my opinion of their services (or lack thereof) with others who might be looking for a place to get their car fixed.

The same is true in the entertainment industry.

What the Chicks need to understand is that they can have their opinion. They can state it publicly. They can run a full-page ad in the New York Times if they so desire. The government is not going to throw them in jail, because this is America, and you can do that here. They have the right to say what they please. But this does not obligate anyone to continue purchasing their merchandise. What they say can have repercussions. The first amendment simply states that the government cannot restrict your right to say what you please. It does not protect you from the backlash of public opinion. Actions have consequence.

I have read a lot from those on the left about how the Dixie Chicks are beautiful and talented young women; decent, honest, and caring human beings, and good role models for our young girls. That may be true, but it still doesn’t obligate me to purchase their records. And I take exception to the idea that posing nude on the cover of Entertainment Weekly constitutes a good role model for my girls, even if all the strategic parts were covered. This is another idea of theirs that I quite frankly fail to understand, considering their audience. Did they stay up late at night thinking of ways they could further alienate those who buy their music? I would expect this from Madonna—perhaps they are chasing a different audience?

Perhaps this will all blow over, and the Chicks will again be flying at the top of the charts; Americans do seem to have a short attention span, after all. Maybe they will be seen working at the local Taco Cabana instead. Or perhaps they should consider switching from Country music to Pop, where such viewpoints are more expected and tolerated. But don’t tell me I am violating their free-speech rights by not listening to their music or buying their recordings.