Defend Free Speech on the Public Airwaves
It appears that the initial update we provided on MPBN's response was misinformed. While the station has voiced its desire to keep Robert Skoglund on the air, it appears to remain committed to its "non-political" speech restrictions, as explained in this statement. While we respect MPBN's commitment to non-partisan, even-handed programming, we feel it necessary to repeat that not taking a position on political issues is not the same as clearing the airwaves of material that might be construed as taking a stand on a political topic. Moreover, by defining "political" in such broad terms, the station deprives its listeners of valuable information and ideas on civic issues, and puts unfair constraints upon its hosts.
Initial reports suggest that MPBN is backing down from the speech restrictions issued to "The humble Farmer" – and is committed to keeping him on the air – in part thanks to the vocal support of loyal listeners and free speech supporters. MPBN has provided its own insightful press coverage of the story. We commend the network for tackling the issue head-on and showing its commitment to airing the controversy fully and fairly.
NCAC urges its supporters to turn their attention to a developing controversy in Maine, where political pressures have silenced longtime radio host Robert Skoglund (a.k.a. "The humble Farmer") and compromised his future at the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.
Skoglund, who has been referred to as "the Garrison Keillor of New England," has produced his unique show on the public airwaves for nearly 30 years. These programs combine obscure jazz with his trademark "rants," flights of dry humor and wisdom that have earned Skoglund a die-hard following.
Last fall, however, one such rant earned him the ire of Maine Public Broadcasting's Vice President for Radio Services, Charles Beck. Skoglund's mistake? Paraphrasing the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on the rise of fascism in Italy, drawing subtle yet subversive parallels to present-day American politics that apparently angered the station's leadership.
In a troubling letter, Beck instructed Skoglund to cease from endorsing "(his) own or others' political thoughts, ideas, expressions, writings or thinking…." Construed so broadly, "political" speech covers a vast range of civic ideas and issues. Mr. Skoglund has not used his show to promote any partisan platform or candidate; rather, this restriction bars him from even reflecting on matters of broad social significance – a staple of his radio persona.
The letter concluded with a clear threat of retaliation:"If we know or perceive that you are not in agreement with these requests … we will immediately cancel your program from our schedule." Such vague and broad constraints cast a predictable chill over their target; for several months now, Mr. Skoglund has altered his radio program to no longer include the characteristic "rants" for which he has come to be known by his loyal audience.
Such disregard for First Amendment values is astonishing, especially in an institution whose stated mission includes "fostering an informed and active citizenry" and "providing a forum for a broad spectrum of opinions and perspectives."
Skoglund's dilemma has recently been chronicled by The Christian Science Monitor and Village Soup. You can also learn more about him at his Web site, where – as a substitute for on-air commentary – he has lately taken to posting his "rants" for all to read.
One fan recently wrote of Skoglund, "His rants on the air have been an indication that we live in a democracy. Their silencing is a bellwether of its decline." True enough, while funding cuts and partisan pressures have rallied impassioned support of public broadcasting, local ordeals like Skoglund's often go unreported or unnoticed. That's why it is essential that MPBN hear from free speech supporters who refuse to accept the silencing of The humble Farmer.
We ask that you take a moment to contact MPBN and express your support for Robert Skoglund. You can also emphasize that while public broadcasting is committed to non-partisan, even-handed treatment of controversial issues, a blanket restriction on "political" speech violates First Amendment principles and deprives MPBN's audience of information and ideas about important civic issues.
See below for NCAC's letter to the MPBN Board of Trustees.
March 13, 2007
An open letter to the Board of Trustees, Maine Public Broadcasting Network
On behalf of the National Coalition Against Censorship, an alliance of over 50 national non-profit organizations committed to freedom of thought, inquiry, and expression, I write to alert you to troubling events within MPBN, and to ask that you take immediate action to safeguard free speech on Maine's public airwaves.
We are concerned that Vice President for Radio Services Charles L. Beck compromised core principles of free expression by placing unreasonable limitations on the speech of veteran MPBN radio host Robert Skoglund (a.k.a. "The humble Farmer"). As you can see from the enclosed letter of November 20, 2006, these limitations were backed by the threat of canceling Skoglund's show.
Several of Mr. Beck's seven "points of understanding" presume to forbid Mr. Skoglund from forms of speech that enjoy clear and firm protections under the First Amendment. Such actions cast a predictable chill over their target (and likely have a similar effect on others, through example). For several months now, Mr. Skoglund has altered his radio program to no longer include the characteristic "rants" for which he has come to be known by his loyal audience.
Skoglund has been hosting his program on MPBN for nearly three decades. He is a unique asset to your station – a "Maine original" and even, some might argue, a national treasure. As one fan writes, "His rants on the air have been an indication to me that we live in a democracy."
The free (and often messy) exchange of ideas is essential to democracy; as Thomas Jefferson put it, "Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government." Public broadcasting is, in this sense, a trustee of American democracy, as MPBN's own mission attests: your aims include "fostering an informed and active citizenry" and "providing a forum for a broad spectrum of opinions and perspectives."
Therefore, we call on you, the trustees of Maine Public Broadcasting, to disavow the undemocratic directives issued by Mr. Beck, and to take responsible steps to affirm MPBN's commitment to free speech on the air. Please do not hesitate to contact us if we can be of service.
MPBN Response to Listener Complaints
Thank you for taking the time to express your concerns regarding The humble Farmer program. We apologize for not responding sooner.
We are taking a careful, thorough review of the issues involved surrounding the The humble Farmer program, including a dialogue with Robert Skoglund. Like you, we hope he returns to the program and to its former, intended programming format.
It is important to us that you understand the situation completely. Some reports and Internet postings fail to adequately explain the positions of MPBN.
MPBN is proud to be a non-political organization. This position was verified by our listeners through statewide face-to-face town meetings on MPBN operations and programming. The overwhelming mandate from our listeners was that the network not have a political slant, that it be impartial, fair and objective across both news and cultural programming. Thus, MPBN requires its on-air people not take sides on issues in their reporting or entertainment programming. Political and controversial issues are presented in numerous public affairs programs and other news forums designed for diverse opinions on a myriad of issues locally, statewide, nationally and worldwide. MPBN.NET has a listing that clearly identifies the diversity of public affairs speakers and issues addressed. None of these, however, is in the entertainment programming originated from MPBN.
As part of our ongoing dialogue with The humble Farmer we have reviewed the impartiality requirements with him several times and in writing on November 20, 2006. Additionally, subsequent program changes since last fall have required MPBN to re-open program format dialogue with him as well.
Our commitment to listeners is to maintain the trust you have placed in MPBN, demonstrate impartiality and maintain the network's integrity.
We do thank you for taking the time to write and we look forward to hearing from you again.
MPBN Audience Services
Maine Public Broadcasting Network