Robertson's threats may have backfired
one of the most influential TV evangelists in
America, may soon have to be more careful with what he says about
gay and lesbian people.
Last November PFLAG (Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), an intenational support group, launched an ad campaign for their "Project Open Mind" (POM), challenging the rhetoric of such people as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Jesse Helms, all of whom have been very outspoken against homosexuality.
Intending to use print and television media buys in Atlanta, Tulsa, Houston, and Washington, D.C., POM blamed such speech for the increase of violence against gays, and gay teen suicide. Attorneys for Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) saw samples of the campaign's content, and sent out letters to each of the markets threatening legal action for "immediate redress and claims for huge monetary damages" if the campaign reached the public. The letters worked in most cases, even stopping the airing of one of two TV spots on "Larry King Live" moments before broadcast time. But the threats may have also backfired.
Jerry Falwell said, "Homosexuality is moral perversion and is always wrong. God hates homosexuality"
national publicity about the threats drew the
attention of Hogan and Hartson, the largest law firm in Washington,
D.C. and one of the nation's most powerful. They agreed to defend
PFLAG pro bono against Pat Robertson. Known as "The Powerhouse,"
Hogan and Hartson has represented such companies as Dow Chemical
and the Dalcon Shield, and the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas when
it was destroyed by fire several years ago.
"The ads themselves were not meant to be the campaign," said Mitzi Henderson, president of the national board of PFLAG, which serves more than 55,000 households, and has affiliates in 380 U.S. cities and 11 other countries. "Their intent was to be part of a community education campaign."
The two hard-hitting TV ads, professionally produced for PFLAG, use the words and images of Robertson, Falwell, and Helms. Robertson is quoted as saying, "Homosexuality is an abomination. Many of those people involved with Adolf Hitler were Satanists, many of them were homosexuals. The two things seem to go together." Falwell is shown stating, "Homosexuality is moral perversion and is always wrong. God hates homosexuality." Helms says, "A lot of us are sick and tired of all the pretenses of injured innocence. They are not innocent."
One tape juxtaposes the words of the three with a young lesbian trying to commit suicide, and the other shows a gay bashing and the victim's parents speaking about it. According to PFLAG's executive director in Washington D.C., Sandra Gillis, the intent of the tapes was to show how violent words against gays create an atmosphere where violent people think their anti-gay violence is acceptable.
CBN lawyer Bruce Hausknecht wrote that the tapes depicted Robertson in a false light, implying that he promoted violence against gays and was the cause of lesbian and gay teen suicide, and that this was "severely damaging to the reputation of Dr. Robertson and his ministry." He said that "seconds" after the statements about Hitler and Satanists were made in a January 1993 broadcast of The 700 Club, "Mr. Robertson reached out with love and compassion to the homosexual community with these words: 'What we want to do is love them... and bring them into the kingdom.' However, PFLAG chose to ignore that comment." Hausknecht stated that Robertson has always preached opposition to violence against any group.
"It was never intended to be a 'Fight the Right' campaign," said Henderson. She said that the position of the national PFLAG office is that the group is "condemning hate speech, and the speakers in the ads are representative of that hate speech. As leaders, they are responsible for the language they choose."
"We have said nothing about the speakers in the ads; we have only reproduced their words," she added. "Hate language comes from not just those three people in the ads, it comes out in anti-gay initiatives. Homophobia is not solely the problem of the religious right, but also by those who have mixed feelings but buy into the rhetoric."
Just how much people buy into the rhetoric may come up as a First Amendment issue in federal courts. Where does one draw the line between slander and freedom of speech?
"PFLAG is walking extremely close to the edge of defamation of character," said Guerneville attorney Karen Ryer, a student of Constitutional law. "Something is fueling the gay bashing and teen suicide, but the question of whether Pat Robertson is espousing terrorism is another thing." Ryer said that the commercials "may have cast him in a false light" if he went out of his way to qualify his statement. She said that one doesn't have to prove any damage in a defamation-of-character lawsuit. Ryer noted that while each of the persons portrayed in the ads has contributed to the atmosphere of hate against gays and lesbians, Hogan and Hartson "have their hands full" in the Robertson case.
"If you are a gay teen thinking about suicide and heard only the first part of Pat Robertson's statement, did he cause the suicide?" That, said Ryer, is hard to prove, but may be a valid argument.
Santa Rosa attorney Caren Callahan, outspoken on gay and lesbian issues and rights, at one time was a Hogan and Hartson attorney. "[PFLAG] could certainly give him the credit that he's abhorrent to violence, but I think that you can go on to make the statement that even though he is, [his rhetoric] encourages violence," she says. "Is that slanderous? I don't think so." In agreeing with Ryer's point about the gay teen contemplating suicide, Callahan said "it's not a black and white issue. To me you've got to draw what's happening to the person who's hearing that information. Maybe they don't hear the second part of it, or maybe even if they do hear it they're still stuck on the first part."
"If he's going to sue them for slander, I think they may have a cross-complaint against him in terms of what he said," noted Callahan. But she acknowledged that both sides have the same defense and protection of First Amendment rights.
Hogan and Hartson is planning to respond in writing this week to CBN regarding the claims and charges. Five of their attorneys have been assigned to the case. It may be the stickiest test yet for Robertson's own legal powerhouse, the American Center for Law and Justice.
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