The cost of free speech

It’s impossible to have an internet connection and not have heard about the slew of sexual harassment allegations against Louis C.K., which he has admitted to. And of course, the laundry list of other influencers, from Harvey Weinstein, to Ed Westwick, to Kevin Spacey, to Terry Richardson. And while all of them have been unsettling, none of them have been extremely shocking, as we’ve all experienced this world as women. Comedian Louis C.K.’s case was no exception, particularly because the reports of his abuse align so closely to his comedy. And that, to me, is especially disturbing, because we grant artists a special level of expression. Though Louis C.K.’s situation is by no means a legal First Amendment issue, I think there is an interesting question buried in the mess, about free speech. I’m reminded of the case I wrote about last week, in which the court will decide whether a baker has a free speech right to refuse to make a cake for a gay wedding. The dilemma is whether baking is a form of expression that is protected by the First Amendment, another data point in the never-ending quest to define speech. Unlike a cake, comedy is obviously speech. But does categorizing it so easily mean we shouldn’t still look closely at it?

I feel like I quote Holmes’ “freedom for the thought we hate” in almost every response now, but there’s so much thought to hate as of late that it’s always relevant. I’m not at all arguing that Louis or other comedians shouldn’t have protected speech— I think comedy can be an incredibly powerful tool to critique parts of our society we don’t like to look at, or laugh about some stupid shared human experience, and even for comedy with no value, it is a First Amendment right. And I’ve actually always been a big fan of Louis C.K.’s comedy. I’ve watched most of his specials, I watched all of his show, and I re-watch funny sketches in YouTube clips. But, like we cannot allow confederate statues to stand as they continue to romantize a time when slavery was acceptable, we cannot continue to glorify celebrities after we discover they are sexual predators.

What upsets me about Louis C.K., beyond the obvious, is that he almost used his comedy as a shield for his disturbing desires and ultimately abusive behavior. This excerpt from Vulture captures the sentiment perfectly: “The allegations against C.K. also constitute a form of betrayal, against an audience that trusts artists to make edgy, even unlikable work, and gives them the benefit of the doubt when they wade into the deepest, darkest parts of their imagination.” His comedy not only normalized exploitative behavior, but may have made victims feel that their allegations would be fictionalized if they came forward. Like Hulk Hogan and Terry Bollea, who’s to say what Louis would do that Louis C.K. wouldn’t. I had liked Louis’s comedy for its dark though sometimes too crude humor, because I felt like it was denouncing the kinds of acts he was actually committing; if he wasn’t in fact criticizing, he was actually propagating a culture that objectifies and silences women. One of his accusers, Rebecca Cory, recently gave an interview where she called his creepiness an “open secret” in the comedy world. While women lost out on jobs and quietly dealt with their trauma, they were not only forced to watch him rise to fame, but to play a complicit role in his success. If his predatory nature was an open secret, that means that these women actually were saying something, but their words could not escape the confines of a patriarchal community. (This essay is a thoughtful meditation on the fact that women actually constantly exercise their speech in that they report such incidences to each other). Under the First Amendment, we have a right to free speech, and thanks to the Fourteenth we all have a right to it. But there are barriers to free speech besides the law, and some speech is loud or powerful enough to silence other speech. My dad always  used to tell me, “If you think something is free, you’re the product.” Everything comes at a cost; nothing is free, including free speech. In light of all of these public incidences of sexual harassment, I think it is important to critically consider the speech we glorify, and the speech we may be silencing in doing so.

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