The warning seemed unnecessary for anyone who’d seen Bill Maher’s HBO show, or witnessed his previous defense of the free-speech rights of some of the nation’s most vitriolic, controversial voices — but Maher made it anyway.
“I want to defend Laura Ingraham,” he announced. “I know that sounds ridiculous.”
Ingraham, the Fox News host, is in the midst of an advertiser revolt after she taunted shooting-survivor-turned-gun-control-advocate David Hogg about his college rejections. The 17-year-old retaliated by encouraging his hundreds of thousands of followers to pressure companies to stop advertising on “The Ingraham Angle.”
They did in droves. And on Friday night, Maher took issue with it.
“It has to do with the Parkland kids, guns and free speech,” he said on his show, “Real Time With Bill Maher.”
“I think those kids did a great thing. They put this issue in a place we’ve never had it before. And I wish them success. But if you are going to be out there in the arena and make yourselves the champions of this cause, people are going to have the right to argue back.”
Maher said he didn’t agree with Ingraham’s stance on that or many other issues — and even called her a “deliberately terrible person” — but said it’s her First Amendment right to say what she wants.
Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who was a guest on Friday’s show, responded that the right to boycott is also “central to the First Amendment.”
“[Ingraham] has the right to say whatever she wants, with very, very few exceptions,” he said. “We have the right to speak back. Boycotting, think of the Civil Rights movement. Boycotting is part of free speech, saying I don’t want to work with that person. Saying I will not buy a product from that person.”
Nearly 20 advertisers, including Johnson & Johnson, Nestlé, Hulu, Jenny Craig, Ruby Tuesday and Miracle-Ear, have distanced themselves from Ingraham’s show since she taunted Hogg.
She has since apologized for it. And just before Easter, she announced that she was taking a week-long vacation, which Fox News told The Washington Post was preplanned. Ingraham is scheduled to return to her show Monday.
Hogg has rejected that apology, calling Ingraham a bully.
“It’s disturbing to know that somebody can bully so many people and just get away with it, especially to the level that she did,” he said. “No matter who somebody is, no matter how big or powerful they may seem, a bully is a bully, and it’s important that you stand up to them.”
Ingraham has not responded to Hogg’s statements directly, but she tweeted a link Monday to the Los Angeles Times story on the Fox News statement supporting her.
Maher contended that the teen was no longer just the teenage survivor of a mass shooting. Hogg and the other Parkland teens are advocating a specific policy position, and it should be fair game for people to question that position, he said.
Defending the free speech rights of vitriolic, polarizing figures is not new to Maher.
Last year, after the University of California at Berkeley canceled Ann Coulter’s speech, citing security concerns, Maher blasted the university.
“I know, we don’t like Ann Coulter’s views,” he said, to audience laughter. “I like her as a person. I’ve never agreed with one thing she ever said.
“ … Berkeley, you know, used to be the cradle of free speech, and now it’s just the cradle for … babies.”
Maher referred to his own similar situation with Berkeley, when some students petitioned to remove him as the university’s commencement speaker in 2014. School officials ultimately stuck by Maher, allowing him to speak.
He also blasted journalist Jeremy Scahill, a frequent panelist who canceled an appearance on Maher’s show when he found out Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos would be a guest.
“He has ample venues to spew his hateful diatribes,” Scahill wrote. “Appearing on ‘Real Time’ will provide Yiannopoulos with a large, important platform to openly advocate his racist, anti-immigrant campaign.”
Countering in a statement to Entertainment Weekly, Maher said: “If Mr. Yiannopoulos is indeed the monster Scahill claims — and he might be — nothing could serve the liberal cause better than having him exposed on Friday night.”
Maher said he empathized because he, too, has been a “victim” of a boycott after making controversial statements.
After the 9/11 attacks, Maher took issue with people’s characterization of the hijackers as cowards, according to the New York Times. He said instead ”we have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away.”
The comments alienated advertisers of “Politically Incorrect,” White House press secretary Ari Fleischer and ABC executives, who shortly thereafter announced they were canceling Maher’s show.
Maher said he saw similarities between that and the boycott of Ingraham.
“Okay, maybe you shouldn’t say that about a 17-year-old, but again, he is in the arena and then he calls for a boycott of her sponsors,” he said.
“Really? Is that American? He complains about bullying? That’s bullying. I have been the victim of a boycott of sponsors. I lost a job once. It is wrong. It shouldn’t be do this by team. It should be do this by principle.”