This question has come up in a number of ways in the previous month and a half. I am a stand-up comedian of sorts, and I tend to be on the edge of what is acceptable for discussion. The comedy scene, in particular, lends itself to controversy in that no comedian of any merit has been able to get through their career without being booed off stage and or offending someone. If it weren’t for our right to say what we please, comedy wouldn’t be as accepted as it is, and that includes our reliance on parody. Comedians like Michael Richards with his notorious nigger incident and Sarah Silverman who says outlandish things just to be absurd would have no grounds to stand on if it weren’t for our explicit right to free speech.
It is of note that while we have our right to say what we wish, granted by our constitution’s first amendment, it does not guarantee us the freedom to say what we wish in all circumstances. In place of governmental regulations on our speech, our discussions are policed by our peers. Richard Pryor was called edgy when he would come out on stage and discuss the black point of view and infused the N-word into his shows. George Carlin is by far one of the more provocative and incendiary comedians of our time, with highlights including being arrested following a show where he iterated the seven words you can never say on television. Our peers, and apparently our employers, have the ability to limit our speech. While the case against Carlin was later dropped after being taken all the way to the Supreme Court, citing our freedom of speech, it is certainly not the last example of an attempt to silence citizens of America through law. More recent examples include the Qur’an being placed in toilets and being deemed a hate crime.
One reason the freedom of speech discussion has become less of an issue is the internet, where everyone is entitled to their own voice, no matter how obscene or vile their comments may appear to us. Websites on the internet range from the good (educational, sports, discussion and recreational) to the bad (fetishes, porn, incest) to the ugly (goatse.cx, racist organizations, NAMBLA). Many of these sites are hosted in locations that are/were unable to realize the implications, such as china that has had a notorious stance against freedom of speech, evidenced by the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, while these sites stay live and untouched. Many of these sites step over moral, social and legal boundaries that would surely make even the most steadfast of us squirm in our seats.
The truth is we all have the freedom of speech; we can all say what we wish, but we have to deal with the repercussions. It is the difference between ability and permission which makes America stand out. Our explicit right to free speech affords us more latitude to be able to get away with saying much more than others are capable of. We can criticize our government or choose to tell our employers off or take part in a protest against huge corporations freely, assuming our criticisms do not incite a riot or panic, and we do not have to worry about governmental interference. We must, however, accept whatever repercussions come of our actions because our words and choices will absolutely impact the way our peers, and employers, look at and respond to us. This is something I have had to deal with indirectly for some time, in that I have chosen to become more outgoing as an atheist in the last few years. I find critics such as Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens and Jon Stewart to be the most important reasons that our freedom of speech must be cherished, in spite of the people who choose to take advantage of it. As Noam Chomsky once said “if we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”