NEAL CONAN, host:
Today, the British Home Office made public a list of 16 people who have been banned from entering the U.K. since October. The list includes a Hamas cleric, a neo-Nazi, and American talk radio host Michael Savage. British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith defended the decision on the morning talk show "BBC Breakfast."
(Soundbite of TV Program, "BBC Breakfast")
Ms. JACQUI SMITH (Secretary, British Home Office): Coming to this country is a privilege and that we won't allow people into this country who are going to propagate the sort of views, and more than that, that fundamentally go against our values.
You know, I believe - we discussed free speech before. I believe in free speech. I want to defend that. But I don't think free speech should be a license for people to preach or to promote hatred or to exhort other people actually to carry out criminal acts.
CONAN: Based in San Francisco, Michael Savage's "Savage Nation" is nationally syndicated with an audience estimated at 10 million per week.
So where is the line between free speech and hate speech? Should people be barred from a country because of what they say? Our phone number: 800-989-8255, email us: email@example.com. You can join the conversation at our Web site too. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Michael Savage, host of "The Savage Nation," joins us now by phone from his office in San Francisco. And nice to have you today on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. MICHAEL SAVAGE (Host, "The Savage Nation"): Well, thanks, Neal. So, what should we talk about? How about the First Amendment?
CONAN: Well, I was going to ask you, first of all, though, how you found out about this. Were you - did you arrive at Heathrow Airport and were you turned away?
Mr. SAVAGE: Well, no. I woke up, turned "The Drudge Report." And when I saw it this morning, my first thought was, darn, there goes the summer trip where I planned to have my dental work done. The second thought was, there goes my visit to the restaurants of England for the great cuisine.
But then when I thought about the list, I said, where's Kim Jong-Il, who allegedly starved a million of his countrymen to death? And why am I on the same list as a Hamas terrorist who smashed a Jewish child's head in with a rifle butt? How in the world could this be happening in the land of the Magna Carta, I wondered. Has the nation of England now become the land of the mini carta?
CONAN: Well, presumably, they've listened to some of the things that you said or somebody complained about them or something. Have you found out how you got on this list?
Mr. SAVAGE: I don't' know. How did I get on this secret list in the land of free speech? Neal, whatever happened to the liberal statement, I may disagree with you but I would fight to the death your right to say it? Where did that go?
CONAN: Well, in that context, would you agree that Britain has the right and, some would say, the obligation to keep some people out of the country?
Mr. SAVAGE: Well, Neal, it sounds as though you agree with them.
CONAN: Well, for example, you used the example of a, well, Hamas terrorist, your description, should…
Mr. SAVAGE: Wait, how would you describe someone who took a Jewish child's head and smashed it in with a rifle butt? How would you describe that?
CONAN: I would call that an absolutely despicable, horrible terrorist thing to do. But nevertheless…
Mr. SAVAGE: Didn't know that by what you said to me.
CONAN: But, well, I don't know that this man did that. You…
Mr. SAVAGE: Oh, you don't know that? Why don't you do your research? Maybe you'd find out a little bit more instead of lumping me in with him.
CONAN: Well, they lumped you in with him.
Mr. SAVAGE: You just said, shouldn't you be lumped in with them.
CONAN: No, I didn't. What I was going to say is do they have a right to keep people like him out of their country?
Mr. SAVAGE: I don't know, but I know that we have a First Amendment in America, and as you well know, you're protected by it.
Mr. SAVAGE: And the whole point of the First Amendment was to protect offensive speech, not polite speech.
CONAN: That is an important point. John Peter Zenger, the celebrated case in Colonial American times was not a polite man.
Mr. SAVAGE: Oh, he was trying to fight the British who were oppressing the colonists. And the First Amendment was written after the Revolutionary War, when we had our First Amendment and our Bill of Rights, to protect speech that authorities would find to be threatening.
CONAN: And as you considered this list, are you taking any actions about it?
Mr. SAVAGE: Well, I've consulted with some very liberal First Amendment attorneys who are friends of mine. They don't agree with my politics, but they understand what happens to a nation that starts banning speech. And I am considering a direct lawsuit against this Jacqui Smith, who was laughed at in her own country, by the way.
CONAN: The Home Secretary in Britain.
Mr. SAVAGE: She is considered an abject clown by people who understand what she's doing. Do you know that this woman has redefined terrorism? She's also started the tracking of emails and telephone calls.
CONAN: Redefined terrorism in what way?
Mr. SAVAGE: Well, okay, she's been labeled a pocket dictator by one writer in England. In January, Jacqui Smith oversaw a government program to adopt a new language for declarations on Islamic terrorism, urging all top government workers to refer to Islamic terrorists as pursuing anti-Islamic activity.
But worst than that, for the general public, she has attempted to portray Islamic terrorists as nothing more than cold-blooded murderers who are not fighting for any religious cause.
Well, we could all agree with that. But she had a new proposal. She wanted communications data gathered by the government. She wanted emails and telephone calls guarded by the government.
She, in April, tried to get a government database to get records of all electronic communications. Internet firms were asked to collect and store vast amounts of data, including those from social networking sites such as Facebook.
Mr. SAVAGE: And she defended it. She said, my key priority is to protect the citizens of the UK, and communications data is an essential tool for law enforcement agencies to track murderers and pedophiles. I mean, I can go on, but I think you get the point. I think that any liberal listening to the show should be quite alarmed by this movement in England because perhaps you will be next.
I mean, if they ban me, will they ban you next?
CONAN: I have no idea. But obviously, Britain is not covered by the First Amendment of our Constitution?
Mr. SAVAGE: No. Thank God I'm an American. But for this lunatic, Neal, to link me up with Nazi skinheads who are killing people in Russia - two of them are in prison for murdering people - to put me in league with Hamas murderers who killed Jews on buses, is astonishing since I have never advocated violence.
I've been on the air 15 years. I wouldn't have lasted five minutes had I advocated violence. And I agree, my views may be inflammatory to some, but they are not violent in any way. In fact, they're mainstream outside of San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Austin, Texas.
CONAN: Let's see if we get a caller in on the line. 800-989-8255, email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Our guest is Michael Savage, the host of "Savage Nation," learned earlier today that he'd been banned from entering the United Kingdom.
Jeffrey(ph) is on the air. Jeffrey calling from Des Moines, Iowa.
JEFFREY (Caller): If you listen to Michael Savage - if every time he says Islam or Muslim, you insert either Jew or Christian, he would be off the air in one day. I've had…
Mr. SAVAGE: Wait, I don't want to listen to this foaming lunatic. I came on the air to give you my opinion, not to listen to someone in pajamas in a mental asylum in Iowa. So if…
(Soundbite of laughter)
JEFFREY: You know…
Mr. SAVAGE: No, no, you listen to me. You're a nobody.
CONAN: Michael Savage?
Mr. SAVAGE: You're nobody and I'm not going to talk to you. Now, Neal, if you'd like to continue the discussion, I'll do so. Otherwise, I have more important things to do than talk to someone in pajamas in an institution in Iowa.
CONAN: Then go do them, please.
Mr. SAVAGE: Thank you.
CONAN: Michael Savage, hanging up on us from his office in San Francisco. Joining us now is Michael Harrison, the founder and editor of Talkers Magazine. Talkers magazine last - two years ago awarded Michael Savage the freedom of speech award. And he's been kind enough to join us today from a studio in Springfield, Massachusetts.
And Michael, nice to have you back on the program.
Michael Harrison, are you there?
Michael Harrison is apparently not with us from Springfield, Massachusetts. And we'll try to reconnect. In any case, let's see if we can get a phone call on the air. Let's go to Mario(ph). Mario with us from Rochester in New York.
MARIO (Caller): Hi, Neal. How are you doing?
CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.
MARIO: I was - I had a comment and a question for Dr. Savage, but well - so, my concern was that in censoring someone like Savage, couldn't that have the opposite than the desired effect? It could be like an endorsement for his views, kind of like the burned books effect, you know?
You're saying is these things are sort of a threat. I'm just concerned that by saying - his ideas are so threatening to England that they're actually going to be a kind of - make you more popular. I mean…
CONAN: Well, Michael Harrison, I think, is on the line with us now. Michael, are you there?
Mr. MICHAEL HARRISON (Founder and editor, Talkers Magazine): Yes, I am.
CONAN: And that's a good question that Mario put, this controversy of Michael Savage being banned in Britain is not likely to make him more popular on the, well, the hundreds of radio stations he's on here in this country.
Mr. HARRISON: Well, certainly he lives on controversy, he thrives on controversy. That's one of his products. So this couldn't be better for him. Look, we're talking about Michael Savage. And it's a free speech issue. It's a banning issue, a censorship issue, very, very sexy, very interesting. So, no, Savage is the winner here already.
MARIO: I'd like to say one more thing. I think there's an implicit value on hearing contrary opinions, and I think that's something, you know, the American principle of saying, I may not like what you have to say but I'll fight for you right to say it. I think that's something important.
CONAN: Indeed, that's what Michael Savage said when he came on this program. And Michael Harrison, I think that's a distinction that all of us would defend, no matter what we may think of Michael Savage's obviously strongly held opinions.
Mr. HARRISON: Oh, there's no question. And I noticed on your Web site, or somebody told me on your Web site, it said I'm here to defend Savage. I'm defending his right to free speech, but not to necessarily defend what he says.
CONAN: Well, Talkers magazine did give him the freedom of speech award. Was that because he's - pushes the envelope or because you endorse his…
Mr. HARRISON: We gave him - the freedom of speech award is given every year to a broadcaster who displays the First Amendment in action and does it in a way that gets attention and has people talking about the First Amendment by example.
It doesn't mean that we necessarily agree or disagree with what they say. And he got the award for being one of the first conservative talk show hosts to actually challenge George W. Bush's policies, as opposed to being in lockstep with the rest of the talkers on that - the conservative talkers.
As a result, we gave him the award for that.
CONAN: As we heard in one of his answers, obviously, objecting to the collection of government data, tapping of phones, looking at emails, that sort of thing - which was not just being done in Britain but in this country, too.
Mario, thanks very much for the call.
MARIO: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Michael Harrison, the founder and editor of Talkers Magazine, about the decision by the United Kingdom earlier today - or announced earlier today - that since October, they had banned Michael Savage, the host of "The Savage Nation," nationally syndicated radio program, from entering the United Kingdom.
And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's see if we can go to David, David calling us from Oklahoma City.
DAVID (Caller): Hi. Hi.
CONAN: Go ahead.
DAVID: I'm a first-time caller. Thank you for letting me through.
CONAN: Appreciate it.
DAVID: I just was wanting to comment that, of course, I'm in, you know, complete support of Mr. Savage being able to say his views, even though I think 99 percent of it I'm totally against. But what I was thinking would be a good thing to do in Britain and of course in the United States, if not worldwide, would be for moderate Muslims to educate the societies that they live in, especially if it's in a majority, non-Islamic state, to, you know, educate them about the realities that, you know, they live just like everyone else do.
They have jobs, they have children and concerns like that. And that might calm down violent attitudes that people have towards all Muslims when it should be directed towards people who are terrorists, whatever their religious orientation.
CONAN: Okay. David, thanks very much.
Michael Harrison, in this day and age, with all kinds of ways to listen to broadcast, I don't know that Michael Savage's program is broadcast anywhere in Britain. But if anybody there wanted to hear it, that would be dead easy, wouldn't it?
Mr. HARRISON: I think so. The Internet has now sort of bypassed traditional means of transmitting a radio show. Anybody in the world can almost hear almost any radio show in the world, and sometimes at any time, because many of these programs are archived as Podcasts.
So, yes, it's very hard for any government to stop anybody from hearing anybody else's view.
CONAN: Let's go now to David. David with us from Tulsa.
DAVID (Caller): Yeah. Thank you for taking my call. I really appreciate it and I love your show.
CONAN: Thank you.
DAVID: My question really comes down to the sort of a slippery slope argument. I don't agree with really anything that Mr. Savage says from a political standpoint. But he seems to make a pretty good argument when he says that liberals should speak up for him in the First Amendment idea.
And my question, really, comes down to this. Is there an appropriate way for a Western democracy or Westernized government to be able to measure the reaction, and therefore the level of violence, that someone might elicit by the conversations that they have on a radio show.
I just don't understand where the threshold is or where the point is when we say this speech is acceptable because it doesn't promote violence.
CONAN: And in this speech is not because it's an incitement to violence. I'm not sure, Michael Harrison, you're an expert on that distinction.
Mr. HARRISON: Well, I'm an expert in as much as I know there are no experts on such a distinction. It's impossible to do that, and that's why we can't regulate speech the way we regulate how we slice bologna at a delicatessen.
I mean, it's very difficult and it's all baloney in some cases.
Mr. HARRISON: But it's very difficult to that, so we shouldn't do it at all.
DAVID: Exactly. Is there…
Mr. HARRISON: Your question, sir, is rhetorical.
DAVID: Well, is there precedent for - I guess, what is the danger to a government or a country trying to regulate speech in (unintelligible)…
CONAN: Well, let me point out the situation. Michael Harrison, I'm just going to draw this distinction, in Rwanda, there were people who were on the radio, saying, go attack those other people, now. That's incitement to violence. That should be punished, don't you think?
Mr. HARRISON: I think it's very dangerous. That's what we call shouting fire in a crowded theater. That's what that phrase means. That's dangerous use of language as opposed to opinion.
There's a difference between danger and opinion. You can give an opinion that may have somebody who's mentally ill or on the edge then be inspired to go do something.
But then again, what about entertainment, what about violence and movies, what about music, what about comedy? It's not just radio. Michael Savage is not the most dangerous man in the world. As a matter of fact, he's pretty low on the list.
So it's crazy to think of a talk show in the United States presenting some type of threat to the sovereignty or the peace - the public peace in Great Britain. It's insane.
CONAN: David, thanks very much for the call. And let's see if we can wind up with Sandy(ph). Sandy with us from Phoenix.
SANDY (Caller): Yes. Hello, Neal Conan.
CONAN: Hi, Sandy.
SANDY: First of all - well, a few things. One: I wanted you to know that I support your decision to offer that guest the option to, quote, unquote, "go do something else." And number two is: I find it very interesting that that gentlemen thought - well, though he believes in the freedom of speech, he chose to hang up rather than to listen to someone expressing their right to free speech.
CONAN: Well, thank you very much for that, Sandy. We appreciate it. And thank you very much for calling into the show. We're talking here with Michael Harrison. And again, Michael Harrison, in the spectrum of American radio talk show host, where does Michael Savage lie?
Mr. HARRISON: Very, very big. He is probably the third most-listened-to host in America in terms of news talk radio. And he's one of the most important people in commercial radio. He's a big-time radio personality in the United States, syndicated on hundreds of stations across the country, and a big ratings-getter, and a big moneymaker.
CONAN: About 10 million people per week, so that puts him behind Rush Limbaugh and, what, Sean Hannity?
Mr. HARRISON: He's behind Hannity. He's behind Limbaugh. He's up there ahead of just about everybody else. And, you know, being behind Limbaugh and behind Hannity certainly is no shame.
CONAN: We hope not because so am I.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Michael Harrison, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.
Mr. HARRISON: My pleasure.
CONAN: Michael Harrison is the founder and editor of Talkers Magazine. He joined us today from a studio in Springfield, Massachusetts.
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