Ipas, an international nonprofit organization based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and WUNC, the local Chapel Hill public radio station, have become embroiled in a debate about the freedom of speech and the increasing climate of far-right conservativism in this country. The controversy began when the radio station informed Ipas that they would have to alter an on-air announcement which has been running since February 2004. The announcement reads as follows: "Ipas, a Chapel Hill-based nonprofit that protects women's reproductive health and rights at home and abroad. More information available at http://www.ipas.org."1
The WUNC general manager, Joan Siefert Rose, decided that the phrase "reproductive rights" could be construed as an advocacy phrase in violation of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations. The FCC prohibits public radio stations from airing underwritten announcements that advocate political, social, or religious causes, but fails to define what constitutes advocacy. This ambiguity often means that the rule is only clarified when someone challenges a radio station's actions and the FCC investigates.2 If the FCC finds a violation, the station can suffer warnings, fines, or even revocation of their license. According to Siefert Rose, many public radio stations no longer accept underwriting from advocacy groups at all.3
Ipas and like-minded organizations and community members disagree with the interpretation of the phrase "reproductive rights" as advocacy. Instead, they say, the phrase describes a wide range of rights that are respected, promoted, and enforced by the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court, laws throughout the United States, and numerous laws in countries around the world, as well as by multiple international agreements endorsed by all but a few countries. At a minimum, these include the rights of women and men to make free and informed decisions about the number, spacing, and timing of their children, and to make reproductive decisions free of discrimination, coercion, and violence.4
"'Reproductive rights' is not a euphemism for abortion," said Ipas Executive Vice President Anu Kumar. "Among other things, it means the right to infertility treatments, the right to contraception, the right to information, the right to life free from rape and violence. In global forums, those meanings are universally understood."5
On November 17, Ipas sent WUNC a letter signed by nearly 100 community members requesting that the station reconsider its position on the phrase "reproductive rights."6 When further discussions failed to reach a resolution, Ipas withdrew its underwriting support for WUNC on November 19. This, however, does not mark the end of the debate. As of Tuesday, November 23, 725 people had signed a petition supporting Ipas and the use of the phrase "reproductive rights" on the air.7
"We highly value WUNC listeners and want to inform them about our work," said Ipas President Elizabeth Maguire. "But there is no alternative language. Promoting reproductive rights is half Ipas's mission. WUNC position denies Ipas the right to describe itself accurately and completely. It goes against fundamental values which we-and many others in our community-expect our local public radio station to uphold," Maguire continued.8
A press statement supporting Ipas signed by 22 organizations, including SIECUS, states, "Sadly, this misguided decision that threatens the very concept of free speech, is all too easy to understand. WUNC fears retribution by the FCC, and that fear is not unreasonable."9
"What concerns me is the chilling effect of the world we're living in, which makes everybody super-cautious about what they say," Maguire said. "The issue of reproductive rights, like many others, has been cast as an 'either you're with us or against us' issue, and so much of the language is assumed to be code for something else."10
- "Ipas Withdraws Underwriting Support of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC," planetwire.org, accessed 29 November 2004.
- Dave Hart, "WUNC-FM sponsor can't say 'rights'," The News & Observer Publishing Company, 11 November 2004, accessed 22 November 2004.
- Dave Hart, "NPR sponsor weighs options," The Chapel Hill News, 13 November 2004, accessed 22 November 2004.
- "Ipas Withdraws Underwriting."
- "N.C. Public Radio Station Bans Use of Term 'Reproductive Rights' in On-Air Underwriting Announcements," Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report, 12 November 2004, accessed on 22 November 2004.
- Letter to Joan Siefert Rose, Planetwire.org, accessed 29 November 2004.
- Is 'rights' a dirty word, IPAS, accessed 29 November.
- "Ipas Withdraws Underwriting."
- "Twenty-two National Organizations Decry North Carolina Public Radio Station Policy on 'Rights,'" planetwire.org, 18 November 2004, accessed on 29 November 2004.
- Dave Hart, "WUNC-FM sponsor can't say 'rights',".