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Analysis: Permission to speak freely?

By
PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter

LOS ANGELES, July 22 (UPI) -- The current round of crackdowns on politically outspoken celebrities has not yet reached the same intensity as the one America experienced during the lead-up to the Iraq war, but with nearly four months left in the campaign for the Nov. 2 election there is no telling how unruly this contretemps might become.

Whoopi Goldberg, Linda Ronstadt, Ozzy Osbourne and Jadakiss have all been called to account for using their media megaphones to criticize President George W. Bush. They have done this with varying degrees of intensity, and the reaction to their expressions has also varied.

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Goldberg lost her job as a paid national spokeswoman for Slim-Fast after she regaled the crowd at a Democratic fundraiser in New York with vulgar puns on Bush's name. Ronstadt was asked to leave the Aladdin Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas after she dedicated a number to Michael Moore, director of the Bush-bashing movie "Fahrenheit 9/11."

Osbourne -- whose current concert tour featured images of Bush juxtaposed with Adolf Hitler as Osbourne sang "War Pigs" -- dropped the visual aid after getting complaints about it. Jadakiss had to go on TV to explain that one of his rap lyrics -- ''Why did Bush knock down the towers?'' -- was just a metaphor.

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Garry Trudeau's comic strip "Doonesbury" was dropped by a 38-newspaper Sunday comics consortium after the head of the group -- who said he had received "numerous complaints ... in the past" -- put the question to a member vote that Trudeau has called unfair. Major League Baseball star Carlos Delgado is taking heat, not necessarily for something he said but for making himself scarce at ballparks when "God Bless America" is being sung.

Comedian Margaret Cho was dropped from the bill of a Human Rights Campaign event in Boston next week, not because of anything she has said but because of the possibility that she might say something out of line with the camera rolling.

All this is very troubling to Robin Bronk, executive director of the Creative Coalition, a non-profit, non-partisan group sponsored by entertainment-industry professionals that focuses on freedom of expression and First Amendment rights.

"There should not be any risk to speaking openly on political matters," said Bronk in an interview with United Press International. "The last time I read the Constitution, we were still granted that freedom and that right."

Bronk agreed with the assessment of University of Southern California law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who has said on numerous occasions that cases like these do not rise to the level of First Amendment concerns, since no government agency is imposing restrictions on expression. However, USC political science professor Alison Renteln told UPI there are subtle forms of censorship other than the official government kind.

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"When you want to get an article published, for example, you have to agree to editorial revision," she said. "Maybe it's censorship in quotes, but it's a way of forcing people or coercing people."

According to a report in the New York Daily News, Cho was dropped from the Human Rights Campaign affair out of an abundance of caution on the part of organizers, who don't want her to provide conservative Republicans with more Whoopi-type ammunition for the argument that John Kerry embraces Hollywood Babylon over plain America folks.

"We want this event to be about the unity of the gay community," said HRC spokesman Mark Shields. "Margaret's people made very clear that they had material that was not in that vein and we didn't want to censor her, so we just made other plans."

Cho's manager, Karen Taussig, said her client was done in by the political climate.

"They said they don't want it to be a media firestorm," said Taussig, "and in light of the recent Whoopi Goldberg incident ... they're just running scared."

Given the closeness of Kerry and Bush in most polls, it is hardly surprising that the campaigns want to minimize their association with over-the-top expressions from their supporters and the openings they provide for energetically critical reaction from the other side. After Goldberg's performance in New York, a Bush campaign spokesman said the Oscar-winning actress typified the "hate and vitriol that has surrounded Kerry's campaign."

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Goldberg issued a statement pointing out that candidate bashing has become "the norm" and wondering, essentially, what all the fuss was about.

''It seems odd to me that anyone would act surprised when bashing has become second nature,'' she said.

At the same time, liberal Web sites such as Media Matters for America are still wondering when -- or whether -- Dennis Miller will get a public spanking for suggesting a gay relationship between John Kerry and John Edwards when Miller introduced the president at a recent rally in Wisconsin.

"Those two cannot keep their hands off each other, can they?" Miller said. "I think I have a new idea for a new campaign slogan -- use the bumper sticker 'Hey, Get A Room.'"

Renteln said celebrity in politics can be a double-edged sword.

"It's good for celebrities to be involved in politics because they have name recognition and they can capture public attention," she said. "But then if they make a mistake it can haunt them."

One of the main lessons in all this for celebrities -- and it is not a new lesson -- is to consider carefully their choice of words when exercising their freedom of speech.

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"If I were a celebrity I'd read my contract pretty carefully before I spoke out," said Renteln.

The episode might turn out to have a happy ending for Ronstadt.

Robert Earl, the head of Planet Hollywood International -- which is part of a group that is putting together a deal to buy the Aladdin -- reportedly has said that one of the first things the new management will do is invite Ronstadt back.

And Cho landed on her feet, getting an invitation from the Imagine Festival of the Arts, Issues and Ideas in New York City to open the festival Aug. 28 -- right around the time that Republicans will be in town for their convention.

However, it may only be a matter of time before Bonnie Raitt starts taking her lumps from critics on the right for her dedication to Bush during a concert Tuesday in Stockholm.

"We're gonna sing this for George Bush because he's out of here, people!" said Raitt as she introduced "Your Good Thing (Is About to End)."

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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