Selective Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech is under attack in this country, but the outcry is strangely muted. The left, normally the most vociferous absolutists when it comes to free speech, faces a dilemma because of the sources of these attacks.

Let’s start with the controversy surrounding former “Seinfeld” co-star Michael Richards. Comedians, known for their propensity for “pushing the envelope”, are under more scrutiny than they’ve faced in many decades, probably since the era of Lenny Bruce. There are reports some comedy club owners are threatening to fine performers who use racially insensitive language. I would be the first to argue such language doesn’t belong in clubs (or anywhere else, for that matter), but imagine the reaction if the source of the trouble were religiously insensitive language. Suppose a couple of Catholics in the audience were offended by an anti-Catholic tirade which forced the comic to apologize and moved club owners to threaten fines. I suspect these infringements on the First Amendment rights of comics would not be accepted so docilely.

What we have here, it seems to me, is the push for “politically correct” speech coming back to bite the pushers. Freedom of speech has been eroded over the years as various words and phrases were singled out as being offensive and banned (not necessarily legally, but practically) from public use. So-called “hate speech” became a crime. Since this banning and criminalizing of speech was done in the name of sensitivity, there wasn’t much fuss made by the usual protectors of such freedoms. I’m not defending any of these words or phrases (most especially not the one which landed Mr. Richards in such hot water), but there is a kind of delicious irony at work here in that those who have traditionally pushed the envelope must now be the most careful about where they push. If this were bluenoses objecting to certain language, there would be a tremendous battle going on to protect the rights of comics; however, since those objecting are not the “enemy”, what’s a comic to do?

Free speech is also not so free when it comes to discussing the War on Terror (a phrase which has also come under attack). Again, in the name of sensitivity, we have to be careful about how we describe those involved, and be sure not to single out any group, lest we appear to imply those most vocally and publicly devoted to our destruction are not nice people.

In this case, however, the reluctance to speak out is based on more than sensitivity; fear also comes into play. How else can one explain Hollywood’s reluctance to dramatize the brutality of those waging this war? Think about the movie industry’s reaction to the Nazi menace during World War II, and contrast it to their silence now. It’s hard to blame studio executives for not wanting to expose themselves to retribution or for recognizing the fact theaters would be reluctant to show anything that might be deemed “inflammatory”, but it’s equally hard to find anyone who will even acknowledge this climate of fear. Again, free speech has been abridged, but it doesn’t seem to be of much concern to those most affected by it.

The only speech battles in which the entertainment world seems willing to engage are in defense of sex, crudity and gratuitous violence. They can still look brave and bold by fighting those fights because they’re nice, safe and familiar. They’re still willing to defend the right to speak, but they’re much more comfortable if the fight is over on-screen flatulence.