Freedom of Speech

Posted on 16 August 2012

Comedians are doubly vulnerable in the public sphere. We speak out and we are spoken about. We point to the absurdity and injustice of political and commercial behaviour. We are also the focus of public scrutiny from reviews to arrest.

You cannot enter this profession without a willingness to stand by your words and an ability to cope with the judgements of others. When you have been in comedy long enough, it’s easy to forget that other people find that sort of visibility terrifying…understandably.

Recently in Austin Texas police were arresting people for drawing chalk pictures with their children on the pavement across the street from the state capitol. The event was called “Chalkupy the World“. It was meant to be an exercise in public debate and peaceful protest.

It’s vitally important that comedians understand their rights and responsibilities as public figures. Otherwise, you can find yourself in trouble.

What You Can’t Say

Some restrictions on speech are reasonable. You don’t want people shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre, because it could incite panic and cause accidental deaths. You do want people truthfully advertising their products and services. I’m allergic to a number of chemical additives. If they are present in a product and the company is not honest about their presence, I could become seriously ill.

Comedians need to be aware of where the boundaries are currently set for defamation. Defamation is making a maliciously and knowingly false or misleading statement about a person that causes them (usually financial) harm. If you were to make an untrue joke about a private individual’s sexual behaviour and this caused them to lose their job, you could be taken to court.

Comedians also need to be aware what boundaries they can set on other’s speech. Some audience members may decide to harrass you or threaten violence. These actions are illegal. If heckling gets this ugly, you have every right to expect your venue to make use of their bouncer and eject the hecklers.

Plagiarism is a big issue for comedians. Not only because we don’t want others stealing our jokes, but because some jokes are just in the air at certain times and a number of comedians may independently recreate them. Most comedians rely on the fact that people who endlessly use other people’s jokes get a reputation as a hack. The court is reserved for those who do substantial intellectual theft from a single source, damaging that source’s ability to make a living.

What You Can Say

Comedians run on the edge when it comes free speech issues. We vent frustrations about public figures and personality types, we make use of exaggerations to make our points, we make full use of the language, and we portray all of life from the profane to the sacrosanct. We do not always speak the factual truth, sometimes we paint pictures of how we feel about things, whether right or wrong, and this has an emotional resonance with the audience.

Technically, you have the right to speak the truth. How you speak that truth is gaining more protection as well. Obscenity laws in this and other countries are loosening up…but they aren’t gone. However, if you speak uncomfortable truths, you will always have people trying to shut you up.

Technically, Australians do not have a constitutional right to free speech. Progress has been made in giving Australians better human rights. We are a signatory to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and therefore are obliged to uphold its articles. This has been successfully upheld in court on at least one occasion so far. The declaration is a stunningly enlightened document and it’s well worth your time becoming familiar with it.

How You Can Protect Yourself.

Some performers get overly worried about what the media says about them. they pick fights with reviewers and may feel they should have the right to intimidate and pressurise people to saying only carefully selected things about them. This sort of behaviour is self-defeating. In trying to exercise that much control, they give a negative impression of themselves. They are seen to be abusing their position of power and perhaps hiding a very dark side.

Your best defenses when it comes to public opinion are equanimity, transparency, and humility. Equanimity: if you are reasonable and composed, you will always look better than someone who is blustering. Transparency: if your behaviour is consistent and you are willing to reveal yourself now and again, people will know what to expect from you and recognise when someone has falsely portrayed you. Humility: if you are willing to acknowledge your fallibility, apologise, and take responsibility for consequences, people will be inclined to show sympathy.

Upon occasion you may want to take someone to court for defamation. Be very careful about picking your fights. Truly most comments on yourself can be safely ignored or dealt with via PR.

Of greater concern is when your words challenge those in power and they decide to retaliate.

A number of years ago someone on my computer service published material that raised the hackles of a religious group. The group pinpointed me as the weak point in the chain of service provision, in order to pressurise me into removing the offending material. From my perspective and those who know me, this was a hilarious supposition. Not so funny was the level of harrassment they instituted. To focus on what needed to be done I wrote a defense plan that turned into an article on the Electronic Frontiers Australia Website: When a Pressure Group Calls.

George Carlin ended up in the US Supreme Court in order to defend his routine “Seven words you can never say on television”. Lenny Bruce committed suicide largely because of government harrassment. Which was the greater crime: saying a few naughty words or tormenting someone to death? These comedians caused people to think harder about free speech, understanding better what is at stake. It’s important to stand up for your rights. Standing up for your rights helps to give everyone more rights. It is also important to get help, so you do not have to carry the burden of facing a powerful adversary alone.

If you find you are on the blunt end of censorship and threats, these are some organisations you can approach for help.

Electronic Frontiers Australia
These people protect online speech. I’m a lifetime member!

Electronic Frontier Foundation
US online freedoms group.

Civil Liberties Australia

American Civil Liberties Union

The Alliance
Protecting the rights of journalists and artists.

Arts Law

Take care.

Peace and kindness,


1 Response to Freedom of Speech

  • […] Australia, the US, nor the UK have blanket freedom of speech. I have spoken about this before. The US, UK, and Australia are all signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political […]

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