Editor’s Note: The freedoms in the Bill of Rights are not absolute, and, although they can easily be abused, we limit those freedoms at our peril. Right-wing, evangelical Christians view freedom of religion as their right to force their religion on the rest of us. And for most of us, left and right, freedom of the press is just fine, as long as the press tells us what we already believe. (Witness our president’s almost pathological hatred of a free press.) Sadly, a lot of liberals value free speech, if it doesn’t offend the special classes of people they’re hoping to protect from that speech. As is always the case, it’s a matter of whose ox is being gored.
“Cancel culture is a cancer on progressivism.”
— Bill Maher
Even before COVID-19 closed bars and restaurants, and put a dent in our collective sense of humor, Connecticut might not have been the best place to open a comedy club. In fact, it may not be the ideal location for free speech advocates or anyone else who takes the First Amendment seriously.
In 1917, Connecticut enacted a law that made ridiculing any person or class of persons based on factors such as race, religion or nationality a class D misdemeanor. Lest anyone think this is an outmoded, vestigial statute that isn’t being enforced, note that, just since 2012, it has resulted in 42 prosecutions and nine convictions. And, in October 2019, two University of Conn. students were arrested and charged with using a racial slur.
John Kissel, the ranking Republican on the state senate’s Judiciary Committee, has called the law “unconstitutional,” and Alan Dershowitz has labeled it “absurd.” However, a recent attempt to repeal the statute has fared badly. According to Kissel, that effort is now “on life support,” even though the Secular Coalition for Connecticut has characterized the law as “antiquated thought crimes,” and the American Civil Liberties Union has taken the position that the First Amendment protects “even offensive and hateful speech,” so, although the UConn students’ actions were “reprehensible,” they were “not criminal.”
The chairman of the Secular Coalition has warned that we risk losing the distinction between ridicule and satire. This is the sort of political correctness that’s caused many comedians to avoid performing at colleges. From the culturally libertarian Bill Maher and the racially inflammatory Chris Rock to the inoffensive and apolitical Jerry Seinfeld (who’s identified “a creepy PC thing out there”), comics are understandably reluctant to see their material edited by “woke” arbiters of taste and PC orthodoxy trying to maintain “safe spaces” where the delicate sensibilities of college students won’t be bruised.
University codes of conduct often restrict free expression that might disturb the easily offended. Maher’s invitation to speak at UC Berkeley’s commencement ceremony — ironically, the place where the free speech movement was born back in the sixties — was rescinded after he was accused of “Islamophobia.” Woke student activists have launched what has come to be known as the “cancel culture,” which outlaws unpopular opinions and often boycotts the purveyors.
Oddly, after 9/11, Maher was fired from his ABC talk show (the optimistically misnamed “Politically Incorrect”) for making the self-evidently accurate statement that, contrary to what we might want to believe about them, the terrorists who flew into the World Trade Center weren’t cowards. As is generally the case, it’s the unpopular opinions that attract the attention of cancel culture censors. No laws need to be enacted to encourage flag waving, or to protect apple pie and motherhood.
During a recent Weekend Update segment on “Saturday Night Live,” comedian Pete Davidson observed that, “Some really gross people are running for office this year.” He then mocked former Navy SEAL, Dan Crenshaw, who’d lost an eye to an improvised explosive in Afghanistan, and now wears an eye patch: “You may be surprised to hear he’s a congressional candidate for Texas and not a hit man in a porno movie … I’m sorry. I know he lost his eye in war … or whatever.”
This tasteless and, under the circumstances, unfunny jibe could easily have cost Davidson his job, especially given the esteem in which SEALs are held. Instead, Crenshaw bailed him out by responding, “I try hard not to offend; I try harder not to be offended.” Crenshaw subsequently went on Weekend Update, and quipped that Davidson looked like the personification of “the meth from ‘Breaking Bad.’” The SEAL and the comic ended up jointly delivering an inspiring Veterans Day message on the unity of civilians and the military. (Davidson’s father had been killed on 9/11.) It was a refreshingly un-PC reaction and a victory for free speech.
Of course, we aren’t the only country with inconsistent attitudes toward the exercise of free expression. In February, Josipa Lisac, a 70-year-old singer who performed at the inauguration of Croatia’s president, was accused of mocking the country’s national anthem. Deemed “socially unacceptable,” Lisac’s rendition allegedly violated a Croatian law that prescribes a year’s imprisonment for disrespecting the anthem.
At least no one arrested Roseanne Barr when she butchered our national anthem at a ball game in 1990. President George H.W. Bush called it disgraceful, but didn’t try to criminalize her caterwauling. Unsurprisingly, the hysterical “snowflakes” on the Right (e.g., President Trump) called for legal action when Colin Kaepernick exercised his constitutional rights by kneeling quietly during the national anthem to protest police brutality.
In the midst of a plague, freedom of speech and expression might seem trivial concerns, but it’s during our most fearful times that the Constitution needs the most protection. During World War II, we trampled on the Bill of Rights to imprison American citizens of Japanese descent in concentration camps. I’ve recently heard moronic revisionists justify this undeniably unconstitutional act, long considered Roosevelt’s most shameful decision, as necessary, because we had “legitimate fears.”
Quinnipiac University law professor William Dunlap has called Connecticut’s ridicule law “clearly unconstitutional,” because “it punishes speech based on the content.” The internment of innocent Japanese-Americans was a war crime, but the hope that we can legislate away the fear and racism that caused it is futile, because you don’t change people’s minds with laws. And, if you truly value the Bill of Rights, you shouldn’t try.
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