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Protecting the punch line — it's serious business

Inside the First Amendment

By Kenneth A. Paulson
Senior vice president, the Freedom Forum
Executive director, First Amendment Center

03.10.02

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I was about to go through security at Reagan National Airport not long ago when another passenger turned to me with a puzzled look. “No jokes?” he said, referring to a sign on the wall.

He was clearly prepared to take off his shoes or surrender his nail clippers, but he saw this old sign with new eyes. In navigating all the new travel restrictions, this passenger had forgotten the granddaddy of them all: You can’t joke about bombs as you’re about to board a plane.

Few quarrel with the policy. You don’t hear anybody asserting their free-speech rights as they go through the metal detector. There’s a consensus that we’re willing to suspend our right to joke at a very specific time in a very specific place if it means we’ll all enjoy greater security.

The events of Sept. 11 give rise to a new question: If we’re willing to accept some restrictions on speech so we won’t feel unsafe, how willing are we to curtail speech if it simply makes us uncomfortable?

Is there a figurative “no jokes” sign hanging over the United States these days? Have the terrorist attacks chilled our sense of humor?

A new survey, released last week by the First Amendment Center at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, suggests that almost 40% of Americans would like the government to step in to block tasteless comedy routines in the wake of a tragic event. In addition, a majority would ban public comments — funny or not — that might offend racial or religious groups.

Among the findings of the survey conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut:

  • 39% of those surveyed said they favor government restrictions on public performances of comedy routines that might make light of or trivialize tragedies like the World Trade Center attacks or the Oklahoma City bombing.
  • 37% favored government restrictions on the performance of these comedy routines on television.
  • 63% said that people should not be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to racial groups.
  • 58% said that people should not be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups.
  • Americans apparently are most comfortable with potentially offensive humor when it’s presented to a select audience that pays for the privilege. For example, 78% of those surveyed said that comedians should be able to perform potentially offensive comedy routines on subscription cable channels like HBO, Cinemax and Showtime. This level of support drops sharply to 58% if the same routines would be broadcast on networks like NBC, CBS or ABC.

All of this suggests that a significant percentage of Americans are reluctant to give full First Amendment protection to comedic speech, art or performances that could potentially insult or offend others. There appears to be a willingness to give up a little liberty in exchange for fewer hurt feelings.

If that’s the case, we’re selling art and comedy short. Throughout the history of this country, satire, humor, music and theater have helped shape public thought, and in turn influenced public policy. From the satire of Ben Franklin and Mark Twain to the biting cartoons of Thomas Nast, from the comedy routines of Lenny Bruce to the scalding skits of “Saturday Night Live,” Americans have used humor to puncture the pompous and challenge the powers that be.

The right to tell a joke that may offend others is as critical to our way of life as it is to stand on the proverbial soapbox and raise one’s voice in protest.

The good news in the survey is that most Americans continue to embrace these fundamental freedoms, even if they have some misgivings about how they’re applied. Fifty-nine percent said they believe that the First Amendment gives us an appropriate level of freedom, comparable to the level of support reported just before the Sept. 11 tragedies. Still, the flip side is a little unsettling: One American in three now believes that the First Amendment goes too far.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani offered some perspective and lampooned his own authoritarian image at a comedy fund-raiser less than a month after the terrorist attack on the city. Giuliani took the stage at Carnegie Hall and urged the audience to loosen up.

“I’m here to give you permission to laugh. And if you don’t — I’ll have you arrested,” Giuliani said.

In the wake of Sept. 11, a society already awash in political correctness needs to resist the temptation to legislate laughter.

In the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, “The conditions for democracy and art are one.”

That’s no joke.

Ken Paulson is executive director of the First Amendment Center with offices in Arlington, Va., and Nashville, Tenn. His mailing address is:
Ken Paulson
First Amendment Center
1207 18th Ave. S
Nashville, TN 37212

Related

Comedy and Freedom of Speech, 2002
Download and print out Comedy and Freedom of Speech as an Adobe Acrobat file from this page.  03.01.02

Nearly 4 in 10 Americans favor government limits on humor after terrorist attacks
News release First Amendment Center survey suggests many U.S. citizens are reluctant to give full First Amendment protection to comedic speech, art or performances that could potentially insult or offend others.  03.01.02

Comedians venture into subject some contend is no laughing matter
Festival honors artists who use comedy to explore social issues; survey finds nearly 40% of Americans favor government curbs on offensive humor.  03.04.02

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