Re-Framing the Free Speech Argument
Remember when George Carlin uttered those Seven Dirty Words back in 1972? I do. I remember NBC pulling the plug on his #1 rated sitcom and Carlin taking to social media begging the network that he'd be more careful in the future....
Wait, that didn't happen? What did happen exactly?
George Carlin said those Seven Dirty Words on a Comedy Album. Young readers may ask what a comedy album is, but I digress. Carlin's Dirty Words were similar to Lenny Bruce's 9 Dirty Words that landed the comedian in jail in 1966. Lenny Bruce died at the age of 40 with no sitcoms, no movies, no TV shows and a publishing credit of 1 pamphlet during his lifetime.
George Carlin, on the other hand, was starting to parlay his successes as a comic into national success when he was arrested in Milwaukee promoting his album during a 1972 Summer Concert stop. The judge released Carlin stating that the language was indecent but Carlin had the freedom to say it as long as he caused no disturbance. The next year, a family heard a similar comedy routine on the radio and took the radio station all the way to the Supreme Court, resulting in the FCC v. Pacifica Foundation Court Case in 1978 which upheld the FCC’s power to regulate broadcast media. The Court Case finally occurred 3 years after George Carlin had already hosted Saturday Night Live for the first time.
Now you could argue that the court case hindered Carlin's career in Hollywood and I'll listen to that. But what's going on today isn't what Lenny Bruce or George Carlin went through. What's going on today is the left and the right are fighting the Culture Wars using comedians as pawns. As deplorable as what Rosanne said, she has the right to say it. Rosanne then had her multi-million dollar TV show taken away. She was not threatened with jail and there is no upcoming Supreme Court Case based on her Twitter habits. ABC simply deemed her speech not worth protecting.
Samantha Bee is still on the air and TBS and deemed her speech as worth protecting. Now you could argue that's what the market dictated, but that's not the case here. Rosanne's Show made more money for ABC than Samantha Bee's Show did for TBS. The difference wasn't dollars and cents, but philosophy. Rosanne attacked the Obama administration, which was an unpopular move with her bosses and Bee attacked the Trump administration which was a popular move with her bosses. Comedians as varied as Tim Allen, Bill Maher, Whoopi Goldberg, Michelle Wolf, and Jimmy Kimmel have all found themselves in varying states of controversy with corporations dictating their futures.
None of the comedians above are hurting for money, they're not working the nightclub circuit, squeezing by from show to show. They are all fighting to stay attached to the corporate teat. Corporations are now choosing winners and losers in the free speech battles. Which is fine for the winners, not really good for society. You remember poor Kathy Griffin? Shunned from Hollywood and cast aside like yesterday's news. She picked herself up and hit the road. She will make between $2-4 Million on her current Comedy Tour. Maybe I'll make the quick roadie to Detroit this Fall. Tickets start at $55?
You can be poor and obscure, like me, and say almost anything you want. But if I cross the line on social media, I will quickly be terminated at my place of employment. Everyone wants free speech for themselves, not always for that other guy. And when people encounter speech they don't like, I run into this argument nearly every day: Free speech doesn't mean freedom from the ramifications of speech. Once corporations start determining what is acceptable free speech based on their corporate philosophy, and not the market, you are now headed down yet another dangerous censorship avenue apart from the government's shenanigans. The question used to be: Do you want the government in your business? Today it seems like the new question is: Do you really want the triggers of democracy controlled by your boss at work?