I don't want to silence Rush Limbaugh, no matter how dangerous I find his maniacal rantings, or the crazed voice of extreme right-wing radio pundits. I think its better to know how bad, how ugly, how crazy the ideas are that are being injected into our intellectual currency. Racial bigots, for example, have proven to require some watching, so knowing who they are is actually a good thing.
However, I don't begrudge what's happened to him over his attacks on Sandra Fluke.
A lot of hay is made over the lack of civility in public discourse these days, and rightly so. Contempt, so it seems, is the new national pastime. Still, the history of our public conversation reveals a consistent distinct and somewhat separate arena of ugly confrontation, an inevitable consequence of our rights to free expression. Those who have made some study of this often point to the scurrilous broadsides Thomas Jefferson had published against John Adams, which didn't so much question his fitness for the office of President, but whether it was safe to allow him to roam at liberty in society at all. The broadsides were, by any reasonable definition of the term, gross public libel.
The reason they were not treated as libel was the public acceptance of that same accepted sphere of ugly confrontation. The rules governing what happens in the arena seem very different than those without, and we find this acceptable. In a sense its a lot like boxing or any other violent sport. If I slam my fist into your face in a legally sanctioned bout its just a part of a contest. If I do it to you on the street its a felony without some extreme extenuating circumstances (e.g. you would have to be an unavoidable threat to life and limb). Even if its preceded by our mutually agreeing to have a such fight in the street, its still a felony, because in the absence of a grant of exception by law, fighting is illegal.
The thing about these arenas, whether of ugly confrontation, or physical violence, is that nowadays they're populated with people who walked in with both eyes open looking for, or at least being open to that kind of fighting. The Roman Coliseum where prisoners or slaves were dragged in along with the seasoned professional gladiators is no longer an acceptable model for this kind of thing. This makes the question of who's in and who's out, who's playing and who's not, important. In highly public discourse there might be some ambiguity about who's in the ring and who's out, but that doesn't mean there are no reasonable answers when the issue comes up.
There's a final important distinction to be made. Even in the arena there are definite fouls (a boxer after all can't just knee his opponent in the groin). Still there's a difference between doing so in the ring and outside of it. In the ring you get penalized in the context of the game, possibly even to the point of loss, or qualification), but you usually don't get dragged into court later. (Although a recent NHL case of a player being clubbed in the head from behind with a stick by an opponent did lead to formal criminal charges, of which he was acquitted.).
What sets Imus' and Rush's gaffes apart is that they fail on both fronts. The Rutgers girls weren't in that arena of ugly confrontation any more than Ms. Fluke was. To the contrary, Fluke and the Rutgers team were operating in very distinct, formally ethical managed contests (sworn testimony before congress, and sportsmanship guided athletics). Imus and Limbaugh were doubly wrong in that they committed what would have been a major foul in the arena, to people who weren't even in it. It was like seeing Mike Tyson bite of the ear of a cub scout.