Does freedom of speech extend to instructing radio listeners how to shoot federal agents? The National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts answered a defiant "yes" yesterday, naming Washington-based talk host G. Gordon Liddy recipient of its 1995 Freedom of Speech Award.
"We mean to throw the gauntlet in this historic battle. Let those who limit any person's speech pick it up," said NARTSH president Gene Burns, in a statement announcing the award by the Boston-based organization. He is host of a talk show on radio station KGO in San Francisco.
But several Baltimore radio personalities sharply criticized the award yesterday, including Allan Prell of WBAL-AM (1090). He brought the subject up on his morning show and told listeners, "Freedom of speech is not freedom of license."
Marc Steiner, who does a nightly show on WJHU-FM (88.1), laughed when told of the award and said, "That's my first comment." He added the award "makes little sense" and asserted, "I don't see him fighting for the First Amendment. I see him fighting for G. Gordon Liddy."
Ron Smith, conservative-oriented afternoon host on WBAL, said, don't pay any attention to these . . . award things," adding, "Obviously, it's politics."
Mr. Liddy, whose syndicated Infinity Broadcasting show is heard in Baltimore from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays on WJFK-AM (1300), has been under fire for telling a caller last fall to use "head shots" if confronted by agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The remark has been at the center of a talk show storm stirred when President Clinton, following the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building last month, complained that "things that are said regularly over the airwaves" are among "many loud and angry voices" that create hatred in America.
Mr. Liddy's response was a press conference in which he said experts had advised him that shooting for the head was a bad idea because it is hard to hit. He also said he uses pictures of
President and Mrs. Clinton for target practice.
When told of Mr. Liddy's award during a press briefing in Washington yesterday, White House press secretary Mike McCurry said, "That is difficult to imagine. I wasn't aware of it." He rolled his eyes and made a face, adding, "That's freedom of speech, for sure."
Mr. Burns said the decision to choose Mr. Liddy as the person who best embodies and defends the freedoms of the First Amendment represented "the single most difficult decision made the board of directors of our association."
Many members of the board disagree strongly with some of Mr. Liddy's controversial comments, said Carol Nashe, executive vice president of the 7-year-old NARTSH. But the board voted 21-4 to make the award in defense of the host's right to make comments critical of the government.
"If you don't like what he says, turn the radio off or change the dial," she added. Mr. Liddy is to receive the award June 24 during a convention in Houston.
"The issue here is not a judgment of his opinions, but rather a show of support for his right to express them," said Michael Harrison, a board member and editor of Talkers magazine. He said President Clinton's view "has served to frighten many legitimate radio critics of government and chill what is being characterized as 'inflammatory rhetoric.' "
However, media critic Mark Crispin Miller, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who does weekly commentary on WJHU, said by such logic NARTSH should also offer awards to such figures as radio's Howard Stern and Khallid Abdul Muhammad, the former lieutenant to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, dismissed for making anti-Semitic statements.
"This is a perverse move on their part. . . . It was not a brave thing for him [Mr. Liddy] to say, it was simply provocative," said Dr. Miller. He asserted the NARTSH statement "ironically, in its own way, is an attempt to intimidate those who would criticize Gordon Liddy."
In an interview after his program, Mr. Prell contended that "giving it [the award] to G. Gordon Liddy is irresponsible because G. Gordon Liddy is irresponsible. If he were in any other profession, he would be bounced out of it."
He added, "you have a responsibility when you're on the radio to . . . making reasonable statements."