Due to pending obligations this Independence Day weekend, I am going to run an old bit I had written a long time ago, in 2007. I think the general idea keeps but the references may be a bit dated. In case you have a very short memory, here are the pertinent bits:
George Bush and Dick Cheney were President and Vice President, respectively.
Whoopi Goldberg was not always the Last Stand Survivor of hosting The View she is today. She once also sold Slim-Fast, and did a whole bunch hugely grossing movies and TV shows in the 80’s and 90’s (in case that sort of thing is important to you.)
The Dixie Chix were a fairly popular country/pop band. I could not name a song of theirs now, or when I wrote this, to save my life though.
Ward Churchill was a college professor who made the news rounds by being almost entirely for the 911 attacks on America, which was a less than popular opinion, but the most amazing Pundit FoodTM I had seen until actually reading Supreme Court decisions stopped becoming a thing people do.
That’s about it, so please enjoy the semi coherent ramblings of those bygone days of 2007:
There seems to be a misunderstanding of the first amendment. I’ve often heard it invoked as a justification by people to say what they want with no reprisals or arguments, from anyone, anywhere, any time. Public figures seem to try and use it that way (think Ward Churchill answering critics by merely saying it’s free speech, as if that somehow defends his opinions) and just people in general who apparently have no understanding of what the amendment means.
First though, public figures.
The Dixie Chix have come out with a documentary called “Shut Up and Sing”. It’s about the band trials and tribulations after one of its members made an anti-Bush comment at a British concert. It was actually a fairly mild comment, something to the effect that they were ashamed that President Bush came from Texas. Which is fairly innocuous compared to other things said about him. Unfortunately for them this resulted in a public backlash in which they were boycotted, banned by two major radio companies, and had concerts cancelled or pushed back due to lack of ticket sales. On the poster for “Shut Up and Sing” is a tagline that reads “Freedom of Speech is Fine as long as you don’t say it in public”. Obviously it’s an attempt to make them look like they are fighting for their fundamental rights! Their first right! First right in the Bill of Rights! Of course it’s a bunch of absolute bullshit.
The first part of the amendment, the part about congress not passing any law, pretty much blankets the entire amendment to mean that the government (congress) cannot make it illegal or put any sort of lawful penalty on the people speaking freely. If the band were jailed for what they said, that would clearly be a violation. If the government levied a fine on them, it would again an obvious breach. If their albums were banned that would also be a clear cut violation. Nothing like that happened though. They suffered the repercussions of forgetting their Southern country fan base may actually like a cowboy president from Texas, even if their British, or Canadian, or Northern US fans don’t.
They apparently assume free speech means freedom to have no one disagree with you, dislike what you say, or stop giving you money. The first amendment does not protect you from the consequences of what you say. In fact it pretty much gives you as much slack as you want, which is also consequently enough to hang yourself with. The Dixie Chix said something that pissed off a bunch of their fans, not all of them, but apparently enough that when they stopped going to concerts, the ‘Chix’ certainly noticed it.
Whoopi Goldberg had a similar problem when she cracked sexual jokes based on the names of the president and vice president (and seriously, who hasn’t, its too easy). She was subsequently dropped from her role for Slimfast (or whoever) as celebrity shill. Again free speech was invoked by some, saying that her comments were protected by the first amendment, implying it would be unconstitutional for her to receive any negative repercussions. Negative repercussions, once again, seems to be someone not giving money. Of course the real problem was that they weren’t paying her for simply being her, but for the image she has. She was being paid to leverage the public opinion of herself into sales of the product. If her public image changes, or at least is perceived to have changed, then she is worth much less to them. No one tried to keep her from speaking freely, and no one else hurt her; she hurt herself by damaging the public image she had been selling. Imagine if she said she liked to kick puppies and eat kittens. It would be more understandable that a big company would want to not have her endorsing their product. The root reason isn’t that they morally oppose puppy and kitten abuse, even though one would hope they do, it is that they wanted their product made synonymous with the ‘Whoopi Goldberg family fun time’ image. I admit puppy and kitten abuse is an overly easy to understand example, but at least it gets us closer to understanding that the reaction isn’t so much to what was said as how the person saying it is now perceived.
The Dixie Chix and Goldberg have the right to speak their mind, and no one stopped them. Their problem seems to be that the people who hear them have the right to respond to them. I never saw the Dixie Chicks jumping up to defend Michael Richards after his racist rant. Wouldn’t that also be free speech? The answer is yes, it absolutely is. If that answer didn’t come easily you may want to take your head out of your ass and realize free speech includes all speech, even if you do not approve. Don’t worry though, you also have the right to call him an asshole and not go to his shows, dependent of course on how his rehab excuse works out for him.
Granted, the Richards tirade is much worse in general than the Dixie Chix or Goldberg, and non political, but it hurt him for the same reason: because his fans (the people who pay money to go see his show) aren’t really keen on racism. They can stop supporting him any time they wish. His jokes didn’t change, his performance as Kramer isn’t any different, the only difference is that his fans did not want to support someone who espoused views they disagreed with strongly. I’m sure he had a few skin head style fans that thought it was great, but unless he wants to be an underground comic for White Power rallys he has to try and convince people that his racist rant isn’t really him. It is a very good example of how public image as a performer, including what you say that does not directly relate to your act, can affect your worth to the audience.
You don’t get to be a popular music group or a comedian by simply existing. You need some sort of talent and a persona that is attractive to an audience. You can’t complain if you piss them off and they decide to not support you anymore (ok you can complain but please don’t make it about free speech). When you are a public figure your public image is something you are selling. You have every right to have your say, you just need to accept the fact that if the people who supported you (i.e.: pay for your albums) don’t like it, then they will probably not hand you any more money.
The case of the Dixie Chix shows goes both ways though. They are losing concert audiences and shows, but only in the south. They have great CD sales. They also have more demand for their concerts in venues they didn’t have much of a fan base in before, like Canada. While the comment made a lot of their core audience pissed off, it endeared them to others who weren’t listening to them in the first place. In all fairness if they are going to bitch about being blacklisted by their former fans then they should equally bitch about their new fans, who are now listening to them to support an anti-Bush band. Of course they won’t do that, because that wouldn’t be good for business now would it?
Bands and comedians aren’t the only ones fucking it up either. It gets brought up in debates where it has no place. Free speech is not some form of argument. Ward Churchill, the college professor who had called 9/11 victims “little Eichmanns”, was on a talk show, I think it was something on Fox News so they weren’t even trying to act impartial, and was being challenged on his recent comments by one of the hosts. For the most part Churchill’s answer was “free speech”, which isn’t so much of an argument as a random phrase thrown in. Maybe he was trying to confuse everyone, or maybe he was just pissed off that someone may have challenged him. Either way free speech isn’t really an argument, it’s more a Johnny Cochran like attempt to trump the opposition without making any kind of point. Just because you have the right to say it doesn’t mean you can expect anyone else to like it, and just because you have the right to say it doesn’t mean it makes your opinion any more valid than mine. If I want to say you are an asshole I can (and will) call you an asshole. If I argue with you, or tell you your reasoning sucks, I can. I can even tell you to shut up. Yes, unless my word is somehow backed by the power of Congress I can tell you to shut it. And you can tell me to shut mine. The First Amendment gives us both the right to say that without government interference. It does not mean we get to say whatever we want with no reprisal, or personal interference.
If personal interference were disallowed then we would have to accept what everyone said, any time, any place. If, for example, you had one friend that would get drunk at a bar and scream “I wanna see some tits up in this bitch” at women (or men) passing by and you told them that if they didn’t stop you weren’t going to go out in public with them again, then you would be making a constitutional faux pas by limiting what your friend said. If the bar owner threatened to kick them out due to creeping the fuck out of customers, this would be illegal and everyone would have to suffer with the jackass. This makes no sense in any sort of rational society
The whole freedom of speech idea is much broader. It simply ensures that the government cannot control what people say (yes I know there are things such as the FCC and other limitations involving combustion and heavily populated areas of entertainment, that do still go against even this broad definition). It was never intended to make sure that everyone gets their say and gets rewarded, this would actually make speech meaningless. It is actually much more meaningful to let us say what we will, but also let us accept the consequences, good or bad, for it. Otherwise no speech is ever bold, it’s just someone talking.