More rules and regulations on speech needed

by Brian McKim & Traci Skene on March 22nd, 2012

“The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws”. – Cornelius Tacitus – “Annals” (c. 116 A.D.)

When the dustup over Rush Limbaugh heated up earlier this month, we held fire. Then we were appalled by what we witnessed on Facebook and Twitter, particularly the spectacle of our fellow citizens (some of whom were comics!) signing and circulating petitions seeking to have Limbaugh removed from the airwaves. We saw a clear line between Limbaugh’s schtick and that of Bill Maher and Jon Stewart and Adam Corolla and Chelsea Handler and Dennis Miller and on and on and on and all of us who call ourselves comedians. (And even if you didn’t believe us, the connection was being made by others, for good or for ill, in the ensuing days. Eventually, the pushback resulted in Louis CK backing out of the Correspondents’ Association Dinner.)

Our reaction was to defend Limbaugh’s speech. We saw his outrageous comment as speech that needed protection. And speech is speech is speech. We figured: If we don’t beat back the folks who seek to silence Limbaugh, we’d have a tougher time beating back the folks who came after us down the line for a similar offense. It’s textbook 1st Amendment stuff.

To recap:

We do mind, however, when people (people who should know better, i.e. comedians) are the ones who are leading the charge and behaving like some sort of dime store Terry Rakolta and circulating petitions via Facebook to have Rush Limbaugh taken off the air! Well, excuse us while we wretch our guts out.

If anything, comedians should be locking arms and leading the charge in defense of speech, not spearheading efforts to curtail it.

We’ve held this line for 13 years. No matter that it was a college professor or a ringtone creator or a comedian.

On Saturday, ran an essay from comedian Dean Obeidallah called “Stop the war on comedy.” It’s a garbled mess.

His inability to check his distaste for Limbaugh obviously clouds his ability to think or write clearly on this subject. It’s tough to do, but it’s necessary.

He eventually gets to what he believes to be the heart of the matter:

So, here is the big question: What exactly is the line that comedians are prohibited from breaching? What type of joke crosses from killing the crowd to killing your career?

To me, the answer depends on two factors. Are you a famous comedian? And what type of joke is it?

Say what?

Our response to the whole matter was to fight against those who would limit speech. Obeidallah seems to think that the way to deal with it is to concoct rules, parameters and qualifications.

This is questionable at best, frightening at worst.

Now, here’s the really scary part:

But to me, the more important factor in determining if a comedian — famous or not — has crossed the line of decency is to look at the subject matter of the joke.

While I absolutely support freedom of speech, comedians deserve to suffer consequences if they make hateful jokes about race, ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation.

We would like everyone to read the bold portion of that sentence aloud. Take your time. Say it twice if you have to.

And savor the many implications.

A fellow comedian is say that we deserve to suffer consequences if we make hateful jokes about race, ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation.

We don’t have to waste our time explaining just how reprehensible that statement is, do we? It speaks for itself, right?

Just in case you don’t grasp the extreme density of that nonsense, we’ll add this:

Obeidallah follows it up with some sort of twisted, tortured nonsense about how a comedian “must be afforded great leeway when the joke is about a political issue.” But such a rule is pointless after the above statement about “hateful” jokes.

Who, exactly, will determine which jokes are “hateful” and which aren’t? Nothing else said after that line makes any sense. Because if you start from the premise that this joke or that joke is off-limits because of it’s potential for being “hateful,” then none of our jokes are safe. “Hateful” is too indistinct of a concept.

Folks, this isn’t very tricky or thorny. The way to protect speech is not to set up some sort of arbitrary (and ultimately unenforceable) boundaries or by declaring certain topics to be forbidden. This is a formula for disaster and it does nothing to protect speech and it does a whole lot to restrict it.

Oh, sure, certain topics will be okay– if they’re treated in a “sensitive” manner by– let’s face it– people who agree with Dean Obeidallah. After all, Dean is on the side of the “good guys.” Right?