The high price of free speech
Letting it all hang out is sometimes not a very good idea
The First Amendment is the most precious of all the rights enumerated in the Constitution, and it’s a pity that Americans actually know so little about it. The First Amendment guarantees the right of Americans to say whatever they please, even the ugly and the irresponsible, but it does not guarantee there won’t be a price to pay for saying certain things.
The government can’t censor a playwright or his work, or the right of a theater to put on a performance of his work, but there’s no constitutional right to require others to watch the performance or listen to the words, just as there is no right to require someone to read this editorial or a column in the newspaper. It’s a distinction sometimes overlooked.
The producers of Manhattan’s “Shakespeare in the Park” learned this expensive lesson when two generous commercial sponsors, Delta Air Lines and the Bank of America, withdrew their sponsorship of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” adapted to portray the violent assassination of Donald Trump. The lesson will cost the producers millions.
There were predictable cries of “censorship,” but sponsors have no authority to censor anyone. Only governments can do that, either by shutting down the production or silencing it by a threat of shutdown, and that is what the First Amendment forbids. Individuals as well as institutions must defer to common standards of decency, too, where such standards have survived the trash culture, or pay the price.
Two television talking heads learned this lesson in recent days. Reza Aslan, who has hosted a semi-religious program called “Believer” on CNN-TV, lost his gig after he called President Trump “a piece of [excrement].” Mr. Aslan apologized for his rough language in expressing his “shock and frustration” at “the president’s lack of decorum,” but the network sacked him, anyway — not for having such an opinion, which CNN seems to share, but for saying it out loud and on camera. CNN has sponsors to worry about, too.
Bill Maher, a comedian whose program “Real Time” on the HBO network is occasionally funny but usually merely a rant, offered an abject apology for saying the word “nigger” in a tasteless banter with Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican of Nebraska. “Friday nights are always my worst night of sleep because I’m up reflecting on the things I should or shouldn’t have said on my live show,” Mr. Maher said, reflecting from his fainting and reflecting couch. “Last night was a particularly hard night.”
Mr. Maher’s apology followed a similar apology from HBO, which called his use of the word, which all men and women of goodwill do not use, “inexcusable and tasteless.” It’s a word — like white trash, cracker, kike, spic, wop, pansy, rughead — that decent folk do not say, at least not in public. Those who do risk paying for it, not in fines or jail time, but in the forfeiture of a good name.
Jokes and banter about assassinating the president of the United States have been off-color, too, particularly since the Secret Service never chuckles or giggles on hearing them. But lately the Trump haters on the left have been flirting with assassination fantasies.
They forget that while the First Amendment guarantees rough and even irresponsible speech, it does not require it. In a decent society, taste is the ultimate arbiter of what decent folk say to each other.