Bill Maher defends Rush Limbaugh against Fluke fatwa

Unlike Arianna Huffington, Bill Maher extends the right of free speech to all. Photo: HBO/Real Time With Bill Maher

SAN DIEGO,  March 7, 2012—In what is fast becoming an ongoing soap opera to fill the shoes left empty by the ABC’s cancellation of “All My Children,” the latest episode of the Rush Limbaugh Fluketroversy finds an unexpected supporter taking up Limbaugh’s case.

Unapologetic left wing (and proud of it) comedian and talk show host Bill Maher publicly defended his unabashedly right wing talk radio host counterpart Limbaugh for his recent remarks about Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke. Maher posted the following to his Twitter account on Tuesday afternoon:

Hate to defend #RushLimbaugh but he apologized, liberals looking bad not accepting. Also hate intimidation by sponsor pullout.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Maher followed up with this incendiary Tweet:

Chris Matthews got it right talking about me today:of course what #RushLimbaugh said was vile but I don’t like fatwas! Ur beating a dead pig

Whoa. Are dead pigs flying?

On Twitter, Bill Maher came to Rush Limbaugh’s defense over the Sandra Fluke controversy.

Bill Maher called the backlash against Rush Limbaugh a fatwa on Twitter late Wednesday.

Despite the incongruity of seeing Bill Maher and Rush Limbaugh’s name in the same sentence, Maher’s support for Limbaugh’s right to free speech is not at all surprising. Maher’s use of the politically charged term “fatwa” in describing what’s happening to Limbaugh is not an accident, given Maher’s own history with censorship by popular demand. Maher has been in the same boat as Limbaugh.

On September 17, 2001, his first show on the air since the September 11 attacks, Maher made some poorly received remarks about the hijackers and about U.S. foreign policy on his ABC Television late night talk show, Politically Incorrect. Agreeing with comments by his guest, conservative author Dinesh D’Souza, Maher called the U.S. “cowardly” and said what the hijackers did “took guts” because they sacrificed their lives for their cause.

At a time when the nation’s collective nerves were raw and Americans were in a collective state of mourning, a remark like this was not taken lightly. Maher’s adversaries on both the right and left called him unpatriotic. Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said it was “a terrible thing to say” and called it a reminder “to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.” Maher apologized for his statements to “anyone who took it wrong,” but it made no difference to advertisers like Federal Express and Sears, which withdrew their sponsorship of Maher’s show. Seventeen ABC affiliates dropped the program.

ABC temporarily took Maher off the air, though he returned. Maher’s ratings did not decline, and he beat his competition, The Tonight Show, on numerous occasions. Maher’s show carried on for several more months, but ABC finally cancelled it on May 14, 2002.

Less than a year later, Maher was back with a new weekly talk show on HBO, Real Time With Bill Maher, where it has been popular and successful.

One of those who stepped forward to defend Maher’s right to free speech at the time: Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, who wrote a column for Salon Magazine on September 24, 2001 titled “The fatwa against Bill Maher: Politically correct TV executives and advertisers are rushing to censor the talk show host for exercising his right to free speech.” In it, Huffington wrote the following:

“To the extent that we give up our fundamental freedoms of expression and dissent, then, yes, “they” have clearly won… One of those battles is going on right now. It involves Bill Maher, who has been excoriated for what he said on “Politically Incorrect” last week. But excoriation — a valuable form of free speech — is not a problem. Censorship is.”

Arianna Huffington defended Bill Maher’s right to free speech in the face of boycotts in 2001. Why isn’t she defending Rush Limbaugh now? Photo: Wikipedia.

Huffington apparently only extends the right of free speech when she agrees with the speaker. To Maher’s credit, he extends the right of free speech to all.

A fatwa is an Islamic religious ruling, a scholarly opinion on a matter of Sharia (Islamic) law issued by a recognized religious authority in Islam. Fatwas cover many aspects of life including affirmative advice. But in the Western world people think of a fatwa as a condemnation, as when Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini ordered the murder of novelist Salman Rushdie following the publication of Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses in 1989, which Khomeini declared offensive to Islam. Other political fatwas in history include a 1933 fatwa in Iraq ordering the boycott of Zionist products.

Maher has uttered some out-of-control vile comments about women in politics, in particular Sarah Palin. Among the ones that can be published: Palin is a “bully who sells patriotism like a pimp;” and Palin would have sex with Rick Perry if he was black.

No one would ever call me a fan of Bill Maher. I find him condescending, rude and tedious.

But I am a fan of the First Amendment and for that reason, I respect Maher for stepping forward to support someone like Limbaugh. He could do no less given some of the comments he’s made. Unlike most people who only fight for the right to free speech when they agree with it, Maher calls for free speech for himself and for those he would disagree with, including Rush Limbaugh. 

Contrast this with Huffington, who has offered no defense of Rush Limbaugh as she did Maher 11 years ago; or Democratic Party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who criticized Rush Limbaugh for his comments about Sandra Fluke, yet willingly joins Maher on his show for panel discussions despite his use of the C-word about a woman in politics who Schultz happens to oppose. How convenient.

Huffington ended her 2001 article with these words: “…for, as Benjamin Franklin put it, ‘Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.’”

Maher is consistent. It’s difficult to find public figures who will stand on principle no matter the liberal or conservative nature of the views expressed. It takes courage. Defending free speech isn’t always easy or pretty.


Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. Read more Media Migraine in the Communities at The Washington Times. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego.


Please credit “Gayle Falkenthal for Communities at” when quoting from or linking to this story.   


Copyright © 2012 by Falcon Valley Group

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Gayle Falkenthal

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, MS, APR, is President of the Falcon Valley Group, a San Diego based communications consulting firm. Falkenthal is a veteran award winning broadcast and print journalist, editor, producer, talk host and commentator. She is an instructor at National University in San Diego, and previously taught in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University.


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