"In a Democracy there is no right not to be offended. Anyone ought to be free to say whatever they like. If someone says things that are offensive, gratuitous and stupid, one has to assume there will be others able to demonstrate that what someone said was offensive, gratuitous and stupid."
Nowhere in the Constitution is there a guaranteed freedom from being offended. It is not a right that comes with American citizenship, like the right to vote. Just the opposite. If the Constitution had a warning label, it would read: Caution, your right to freedom of speech means others have a parallel right, which is highly likely to occasionally provoke anger, annoyance, disgust and offense.
This is a very small price to pay for the ability to speak our minds. But apparently it is too high for some. These people are the overly sensitive, easily wounded, walking eggshells among us who equate being offended with being a victim - a status from which they firmly believe the government should protect them. They want the state to determine taste and propriety (as long as it comports perfectly with their own) and enforce those standards in law. Pandering politicians are more than happy to oblige.
The danger is that their demand for the cleansing of public discourse gives the government the power to shut down some speakers and strip the emotive force from others, transforming "freedom of speech" into "speech at the government's leave."
Broadcasters, for example, have always served up programming under the threat of government sanctions for disapproval. This fact became more evident recently, when, after Janet Jackson's breast exposure at last year's Super Bowl, Congress rushed to hold hearings on broadcast indecency.
The swirl of controversy led to skyrocketing fines for profanity - with the result that 66 television stations refused to air the Oscar-winning war epic Saving Private Ryan on Veterans Day. Now the FCC is investigating the opening ceremonies of the summer Olympics in Greece. Apparently, the camera caught sight of a nude male statue.
Government-approved fare tends toward mush.
In 1978, when the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling said the FCC could police radio broadcasts for indecency despite the First Amendment, the justices emphasized that it was a narrow ruling, not applicable beyond the broadcast medium. But people don't appreciate this distinction. They say, understandably, that if government is permitted to clean up dirty language on television, then why not wherever it appears?
Which brings us to the brouhaha in Clearwater. In December, at an outdoor concert at Coachman Park billed as the Next Big Thing IV, 12,500 fans of alternative rock enjoyed 10 different bands. But because five people in the surrounding neighborhoods complained to police about the vulgar language and obscenities used by some of the musicians, the city plans on vetting future acts.
Kevin Dunbar, the city's director of Parks and Recreation, after being pushed to address the "problem" by the mayor and City Council, says that the city will be more particular about who is booked to perform. "(The city will) look to bring in the kind of groups that are more mainstream so we are not offending the people who live in the outlying areas," Dunbar says.
Maybe the next concert should be called the Next Banal Thing.
This is censorship just as if the city passed an ordinance flatly prohibiting profanity by musicians in the park. Just because it occurs behind the scenes doesn't make it any more palatable.
It is also a sadly predictable response. Last summer, the Mandeville City Council in Louisiana warned that any profanity used by musicians at the Mandeville Trailhead outdoor amphitheater would lead to their arrest. The facilities manager now has all musicians sign an agreement to self-censor before they go on.
Elected officials generally stand with clamoring constituents against the free speech rights of the profane or unpopular. Only the First Amendment acts as a bulwark against this censorious reflex, and courts must be counted on to man the ramparts.
In the past, they have.
The seminal case is the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Cohen vs. California. The facts involve a young Paul Robert Cohen who, in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War, walked into the Los Angeles County Courthouse wearing a jacket with the words "F-- the Draft" emblazoned on the back. For wearing a profane jacket, Cohen was charged and convicted of disturbing the peace. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail.
The Supreme Court threw out his conviction on free-speech grounds. Justice John Harlan wrote in ringing eloquence of why society must tolerate bad language: "(W)hile the particular four-letter word being litigated here is perhaps more distasteful than most others of its genre, it is nevertheless often true that one man's vulgarity is another's lyric." (Could he have known that Eminem was coming?)
Harlan also noted that the use of curse words serves a "dual communicative function," not only as the expression of an idea but as an emotional vehicle. "Words," Harlan said, "are often chosen as much for their emotive as their cognitive force."
Harlan is saying that in protecting the crassest amongst us, we uphold the highest values of a free society. So the next time you're deeply offended, whether it is by a musician cursing at a neighboring outdoor concert or, as I am, by the inane rantings of Ann Coulter, smile - that just means you live in freedom.