Promoting Comedy in the Public Forum: Learning the Tricky Ropes

As democracies go, America is a haven for the practice of comedy thanks to the First Amendment which protects the right of free speech. And, in this area, public forums are very important, especially those venues provided by the government, which are often the venues with the largest audiences for many a speaker. Yet, access to those venues is neither as free nor as guaranteed by law as the right to free speech itself. Indeed, often times people erroneously assume that easy access to a public forum is something of a matter of course. Wrong

On closer examination, a lot of folks, comedians included, have been surprised to find that there are quite a bit of rules or regulations (principles, if you will) that govern someone’s right of access to speak at a public forum.

By the way, comedians might be interested to note here that “speech” in this context includes not just things that are said at an actual show but also things that are written or said in the process of advertising a show or event, say, on billboards or posters.

As a general rule, what one can say on a particular public forum depends on what sort of forum the place is, namely, whether it is a traditional public forum or a “designated” or limited public forum. With traditional public forums, such as public parks and street corners, life is easy and you can think of those places as free speech highways where all manner of speech is allowed, both political and ideological and non-political speech, which includes commercial speech like advertising and the like. In these forums, the government cannot restrict or deny or speech based on the “content” of that speech, meaning, for instance, that it cannot decide to allow commercial speech but ban religious speech. Nope!

In order for the government to do so, it must show not only that it had a “compelling” interest or reason restricting or denying speech but also that it had no other means available to it to achieve the same result in a manner that would have had less impact on the speech in question. Lawyers call this the “strict scrutiny” rule, the whole point of which is to make it very difficult for the government to mess around with any of the “protected” rights under the constitution.

(Note that although the government isn’t allowed to ban or restrict any constitutionally “protected” speech it is nevertheless allowed to regulate the time, place and manner of exercising the right.)

Then there are the “designated” or limited public forums, such as subways and buses, which are places where the government can choose what sort of speech to allow and which ones to prohibit. Government can choose, for instance, to ban political speech while allowing commercial speech. But as long as it has opted to allow commercial speech, it cannot then start to discriminate between commercial speeches on the basis of “viewpoint.”  In other words, the government’s actions in restricting or denying speech in such situations must be “viewpoint- neutral and reasonable,” meaning that it cannot, for example, treat similar speeches differently.

For comedians and other entertainers who frequently need to publicize their shows in the public forum, the limited public forums are the ones that appear to raise the trickiest questions.

In the ordinary case, an ad by, say, a computer store on a city bus is a straightforward business promotion and often goes off without a hitch. However, problems might arise where what is said in an ad, for instance, can be perceived as “political” in nature and/ or controversial and thus banned. And this is where comedians can sometimes run into unexpected difficulties with exercising their free speech in such public forums.

Perhaps one of the more interesting cases here is the one involving some Muslim comedians who in September 2014 wanted to advertise their documentary film The Muslims Are Coming through the use of posters in the New York City subway system operated by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). The said movie, produced one year earlier, follows some Muslim-American comedians on their tour of American towns and cities and their interactions with the audiences.

 The various poster ads contained the link to the movie’s website as well as various comic statements, including things like “Muslims Hate Terrorists”; “They also hate”: ‘People who tell you they went to an Ivy League School within 10 seconds of meeting them;’ ‘When the deli guy doesn’t put enough schmear on the bagel;’ ‘Getting out that last bit of toothpaste from the tube.’ The ads also contained statements like “Those Terrorists are all Muslim [the word “Muslim” is crossed out] Nutjobs,” “Grown up Muslims can do more pushups than baby Muslims” and so on.  The six ads were scheduled to run over a one -month period in 144 ads across the city’s subways. But the MTA rejected the proposed ads on the grounds that the ads violated its newly adopted policy which allowed commercial speech while barring the use of its facilities for “political” speech.

However, the comedians Dean Obeidallah and Negin Farsad plus the ad’s producer Vaguely Qualified Productions sued the MTA and won big in federal court. In siding with the comedians, the court ruled instead that the ads were essentially “commercial” speech by a for-profit entity and that it was remained so even if the advertiser might have been trying to capitalize on the political controversy around Islamophobia to promote its business interest. (At the time in question, the right-wing activist Pamela Geller’s group the American Freedom Defense Initiative [AFDI] was reportedly running an anti-Muslim ad in the said subways, depicting a man in a headscarf plus the incendiary words “Killing Jews is Worship that Draws Us Close to Allah.” The Muslim comedians claimed they were simply trying to counter the possible cultural impact of that campaign.)

Furthermore, the court said that even if the ads could be considered as “political” speech, the MTA had engaged in “viewpoint discrimination” given that it had already allowed other ads on its platform that were arguably even more political in nature than the comedians’ ads in this case, such as cable TV station CNN’s ad about the GOP presidential debate which contained photos and quotes by the candidates.  In other words, the court found that the MTA, which offered its subways and buses as a limited public forum for speech, was treating similar things differently in violation of the principle of “viewpoint-neutrality.”

So, what are some of the lessons here? Well, for starters, the less political speech that are contained in ads for a show, the easier life will be for the comedian. Obviously, things can get tricky when the ads straddle the political and the commercial lanes of traffic: in such situations, the authorities might be tempted to use the excuse of stopping political speech to perhaps ban the ads of a rather controversial comedian they might not like. (This is arguably what the MTA was trying to do in the Muslim comedians’ case, as the court implied.)  The other thing is that when it comes to ads and free speech, life is easiest in classic public forums like public parks and streets where the test is “strict scrutiny”; things get a little hard in limited public forums like subways and buses; and even harder in nonpublic forums like public schools, public hospitals or even jail houses. With all that in mind, the good news, though, is that even in the forums that are less friendly to free speech, such as the limited or nonpublic forums, there is still the protection of the First Amendment in requiring that there be no viewpoint discrimination. In any event, ads containing statements or images that might be considered as “obscene” or statements that amount to “fighting words” or which could be viewed as “incitement to violence” are not protected under the First Amendment regardless of the forum involved.     

The Predicament of Mike Ward: An American Perspective on Canadian Comedy

What’s the difference between a Canadian comic and his American counterpart? Simple answer: location, location, location.

The brash Canadian comedian Mike Ward has had quite the unpleasant experience in his march through the comedy landscape of his country. From all indications, if he thought his native Canada was a place where a comedian could safely ply controversial material, he figured wrong, it seems. And for good measure, such a comedian could also find himself in the poor house should some in his audience decide to take him before the authorities.

But before getting into how Canadian and American comedy stack up against one another, it may be well to briefly recount the Mike Ward story:

In 2010, Ward, in a series of routines he performed at his shows in Canada, attacked a disabled kid named Jeremy Gabriel, whom he denounced as “ugly” and lamented the fact that the kid had not yet died. (Gabriel, 13 years old at the time, was born with a condition known as Treacher Collins syndrome which left him with a deformed face and skull. At the time of Ward’s attack, Gabriel had become something of a local celebrity in Canada’s Quebec province for his singing ability, including singing with Celine Dion as well as singing for the Pope in 2006. Ward claimed that he had initially supported Gabriel’s good fortune, on the assumption that the world was coddling him because he would soon die. Ward said that he felt duped when years had passed and Gabriel was still going strong with his singing fame. In reaction, the comedian said he went on the Internet to find out exactly what Gabriel was suffering from. Ward said he was surprised at what he discovered: “You know what it was? He’s ugly, godammit!”

Long story short, Gabriel and his family sued Ward before the Quebec Human Rights Commission for allegedly “hurting, vexing and humiliating” him and as well as for damaging his [Gabriel] confidence and singing career and causing him to be mocked at school. In its 2016 ruling, the Commission said that the comedian’s joke violated Gabriel’s right to dignity, honor and reputation as well as his right to equality and to be safe from discrimination. As a remedy, it penalized Ward with a total fine of $42,000 (consisting of $35,000 to Gabriel and $7,000 to his mom).

The Commission’s ruling outraged Ward and many of his supporters in the comedy community, He promptly set up a crowdfunding campaign and launched an appeal against the ruling. Speaking on behalf of other comics, Ward said: “If the judgment is maintained, no one will be able to dare to be a stand-up comic, because normally you make fun of things that are controversial, otherwise it’s not funny. …If anything that’s controversial can authorize someone to say, I was hurt, I’m going to court, then we’re finished.” Then he tagged on an interesting analogy: “To bring a comedian to court who does dark humor, for a trashy joke, is like giving Vin Diesel a speeding ticket for driving fast in [the movie] The Fast and the Furious.”

Now, let’s consider a different scenario, this time involving Canada and the U.S., its close neighbor to the south. Both countries are democracies and open societies. So, suppose the Ward situation occurred in the US, will the comedian’s fate be any different? In other words, if Ward would have appeared at some comedy venue in America and viciously attacked some disabled kid, will he face a peril to his career similar to what happened to him in Canada? Well, the short answer is: Probably not!

For starters, considering the central role of the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee in the conversation in America’s public square, there would seem to be no room for an agency like the Quebec Human Rights Commission. Fact is, the agency’s watchdog role carries way too much potential for censorship than the First Amendment could live with. To the blessing of comedians in America, controversial speech oddly seems to enjoy enormous protection from censorship. To say things that hurt somebody else’s feelings or even things that are very cruel are allowed in America’s social conversation. Needless to say, Americans get it clearly that the “free society” they pride themselves in can also be a pretty uncomfortable society where some of the most offensive things ever may yet be safely said. Pretty much everything is allowed, other than a few situations like where somebody’s speech could be viewed as inciting violence or be considered as “fighting words” (the sort that would likely draw a violent reaction from the person to whom they are addressed).

So, in the above scenario, merely attacking a disabled kid, however viciously and however tacky the action might seem, would not be reason enough to find legal liability against a comedian and thus to impose a punishing fine upon him. In short, the Mike Ward ordeal is simply a Canadian story that is hard to imagine in a place like America.

However, given the Gabriel family’s other allegation that Ward damaged Gabriel’s reputation by his joke, plus the Commission’s references to Gabriel’s honor and reputation in its decision, some have wondered why a good old-fashioned defamation action cannot be successfully pursued against Ward even in an American court. Well, not much luck here, either. And the reason is simple enough: Statements that a professional funnyman made to audiences who understood said statements as a joke would not qualify as the kind of false statement of fact that would damage somebody else’s reputation, which is the very point of a defamation action.

Yet just because comedians south of the border are allowed by the law to be offensive to others doesn’t mean that an American comedian whose stock in trade is the plying of unnecessarily “outrageous” material will enjoy a smooth sail to a comfortable career. In an era of political correctness and cancel culture, there is the law and then there is the court of public opinion, two different venues. Whereas the law may not take an outrageous comedian’s money from him by way of court fines, for its part, the consuming public may refuse to give him any money at all by simply not patronizing his comedy. This is a powerful reality that neither Ward nor any comedian in America or Canada for that matter can afford to ignore.

Still, in America, fortunately for comics, political correctness and the law continue to have some good degree of separation from each other unlike in Canada where they currently appear to the merging and this surely can’t be good news for comedy. As the Mike Ward situation demonstrates, it seems that when speaking of the very survival of a comedian’s career, the whims of political correctness and cancel culture are more manageable hazards than the blunt instrument of a court order directed at the comedian. As it happens, an unfavorable court order is no laughing matter, even for a funnyman.


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Ron Howard’s Movie “The Dilemma”: The ‘Gay’ Joke in the Eye of the Storm

Talk about rough landing for a movie and the upcoming comedy The Dilemma easily moves to center court. The movie starring Hollywood actor Vince Vaughn is not set to hit theaters until January 14, 2011, but it has apparently already run some red lights in the court of public opinion, thanks to the movie’s trailer. In the movie, Vaughn’s coarse character kicks the hornet’s nest by rashly saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, electric cars…are gay.” Making matters worse, the widely reported events around the time of the trailer’s release only added fuel to the fire, from the Rutgers University freshman [Tyler Clementi] who jumped to his death after his friends posted a video of him having gay sex to the rash of anti-gays attacks in New York City around that time.

The first shot was fired at the movie by CNN’s Anderson Cooper who blasted the gay joke as offensive and just too much to accept and that it could hurt kids. Then there was another shot from comedian-actress Ellen DeGeneres, followed by gay rights groups, and soon there were calls to cut the line from the movie. But the movie’s director Ron Howard rejected the calls, stating that “[i]f storytellers, comedians, actors and artists are strong armed into making creative changes, it will endanger comedy as both entertainment and provoker of thought.”

Vaughn himself sided with his director, saying that comedy and joking about our differences breaks tension and brings people together. “Drawing dividing lines over what we can and cannot joke about does exactly that; it divides us. Most importantly, where does it stop”?

However, the battle lines from this debate are really those between the First Amendment’s free speech protection and today’s “political correctness”, which is in essence a genuine “law versus society” scenario, a type of tension that is nothing new.

In a classic free speech tone, Howard says that he defends the right for some people to express offense at a joke as strongly as he defends the right for that joke to be in a film. But seriously, can Howard really keep the line in the movie, damn the uproar? Will the law let him? Short answer: Well, probably!

Free speech is very important to American democracy. Yet, there are boundaries drawn by the law around it. The common boundary lines include the use of language that “incites” folks to “violence” against others or the use of “fighting words”, which are words that would be likely to provoke a violent or similar reaction from people to whom they are directed, a common example being the ‘N’ word. Also, there is no free speech protection for the use of “obscene” language, as in the use of sexually explicit language that could provoke lustful feelings or other language of an immoral, lewd, or indecent kind.

In The Dilemma situation, as offensive as it might be, it does not appear that the “gay” line, just by itself, would “incite” anyone to go out and commit acts of violence against gays. Plus, speaking of “fighting words”, the word “gay” does not yet seem to carry with it the same kind of derision and historic stigma as the “N” word. In this respect, one could reasonably assume that the movie would have come much closer to the danger zone if it would have made a similar crack at say, Blacks or Jews or Muslims. But it didn’t.

The other free speech issue of “obscenity” does not arise in this case, given that the ‘gay’ line is not dealing with anything indecent, lewd or perhaps sexually titillating. And this greatly reduces any real chance of the movie’s opponents punishing the film with a less favorable MPAA rating.

So, as things stand today, opponents of The Dilemma movie don’t seem to stand much chance within the law to force the filmmaker to cut the ‘gay’ line from the movie, for the simple reason that under America’s free speech regime, mere offense to people’s sensibility does not necessarily give rise to a legal remedy. But that’s not the end of the matter, because, for starters, the opponents can move their case over to the court of public opinion. Their odds of success are better in this alternative court, thanks to the new reality of political correctness in today’s public attitudes, where to give offense to the sensibilities of any group can rob a movie of the audience it needs to do well at the box office.

So far, the movie’s opponents have snagged some concession that no court of law would have given them: the studio Universal Pictures has agreed to cut the offending ‘gay’ line from the movie’s trailer. Who knows what further concession(s) they might win from the studio before the movie actually hits the theaters in January 2010.