The high price of free speech

Let­ting it all hang out is some­times not a very good idea

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL -

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.

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