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.     

Going to Jail for a Joke: A Contemporary American Look at German Comedy

jan_bohmernann_photo6The saying that America is a ‘free country’ is something that Americans in the comedy business in contemporary times would probably appreciate better than most people. But in other places, however, thanks to their laws, comedians actually live in a different world and in some cases can actually go to jail for the content of their comedy. Perhaps surprisingly, Germany is one of those places.

Take the case of comedian Jan Bohmermann. In March 2016, Bohmermann, a German insult comedian and host of the satirical talk show Neo Magazin Royale took an offensive shot at Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Sitting in front of a Turkish flag and a portrait of Erdogan, Bohmermann read a poem in which he suggested, among other things, that the Turkish leader had sex with goats and watched child porn. Ouch! Well, perhaps this was great comedy for his audience but the offensive gag did in fact run up against an actual law in Germany which forbids anyone from insulting a foreign leader. The punishment? Up to three years jail or a fine.

Not surprisingly, the reaction of the Turkish government was swift and harsh. In demanding that Bohmermann be immediately punished for his action, the Turkish government denounced the satirical poem as a “serious crime against humanity…that crossed all lines of indecency” as well as an insult to all Turkish people’s honor. For her part, German chancellor Angela Merkel (under pressure to preserve her country’s refugee deal and overall fragile relations with Turkey) also condemned the poem as “deliberately offending,” and noted that Germany’s freedom of the media was not an unlimited right. Sensing that it had stepped into it, Germany’s ZDF, the public broadcaster that carries the comedian’s talk show, yanked the video from its website as well as on YouTube.

In contemporary America, it is taken for granted that something like the Bohmermann situation cannot happen here and indeed that is true. Thanks to the First Amendment’s prescription for “uninhibited, robust and wide-open” debate on matters of public concern, it is difficult to imagine any situation where a contemporary American comedian can be arrested and charged for the content of their comedy. Usually, if it should happen that some foreign leader doesn’t like a particular joke made by some American comedian, well, tough luck! No wonder it is said that the First Amendment is the comedian’s best friend and that America is the freest place on earth where a person can do comedy, gadflies like Bohmermann included.

Yet, in perspective, the American cultural landscape wasn’t always such a danger-free zone for any comedian who would push the envelope and thereby ruffle neatly arranged feathers or step on sensitive toes. The legendary American comedian Lenny Bruce is remembered as much for his heroic advocacy of free speech as for the tragic price he paid for doing so. Bruce was the classic iconoclast who never hesitated to attack the conventions of the American society of his time in a bid to expose what he considered as their hypocrisy, whether the conventions concerned religion, sexuality, race, the flag, and more. Consequently, between 1961 and 1964, he was arrested for obscenity in places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. The encounter in New York ended in an actual criminal conviction. (By the time he died in August 1966 of a drug overdose, his conviction was yet to be overturned on appeal. He was finally pardoned in 2003 by the governor of New York.) Today, thanks to Lenny Bruce and his leadership in the free speech battles of his era, no American comedian since then has been charged with a crime for the content of their comedy.

Speaking of Bohmermann, it happened that this past fall, the German authorities who had been weighing an indictment against him, opted not to do so, citing lack of evidence. For what it is worth, they claimed that since Bohmermann’s crude poem was simply an example of what would constitute overstepping the boundaries of freedom of opinion rather than him actually expressing his own views about Erdogan, he therefore didn’t violate the law after all. In other words, whatever Bohmermann was doing with his poem was OK as long as he had not expressed his own personal opinion about Erdogan. Now, for anyone who really cares about free expression, the trouble with this kind of reasoning is that Bohmermann was saved from going to jail precisely because he did not in fact (allegedly) express his own personal views about the subject he was dealing with. Translation: as German law sees it, not saying what is on one’s mind is actually the way to avoid trouble and jail. Really? Well, let’s just say that Americans, whether they are comedians or not, simply do not see freedom of expression in this way.

The other intriguing fact here is how even Bohmermann himself perhaps seems not to quite grasp the deeper implication of the prosecutor’s decision. To be sure, he was right (as a free speech advocate) in railing against the authorities for launching the investigation at all as well as for stating that “if a joke triggers a state crisis, it is not the problem of the joke, but of the state.” Only problem is, Bohmermann would have to be living in a place like America where that kind of protection exists as a fact of life for comedians courtesy of the First Amendment. Given the way things actually work in Germany where he lives, it is obvious that as long as this particular law remains unchanged, a joke which triggers a state crisis could indeed land a comedian in jail if that joke happens to be his personal opinion on the subject. Especially when such a joke rubs prickly foreign leaders like Erdogan the wrong way. Not a happy picture!

Still, it isn’t all fun and games in American comedy today and indeed may not be so any time soon. Although nothing quite compares to going to jail for doing a comedy act, as it was in the Lenny Bruce era, it remains true that the current culture of political correctness does present quite a headwind for the advance of American comedy. Where a comedian in the 1960s would have worried about a cop in the audience arresting him for, say, obscenity, today’s comedians rather worry about their act offending the so-called PC police on social media and other forums in the public square. Incidentally, the growing clout of the PC police has caused some famed contemporary comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock to opt to skip doing shows on college campuses where PC seems now to be almost a religion. However, to America’s advantage in the American-German match-up, we’re really talking about the impact of an actual penal law versus a mere social phenomenon that comedians, admittedly, find unpleasant. A night and day difference, it seems. Besides, it’s not as though German comedians themselves also don’t have to worry about PC, just like the Americans. They actually do! Not least because Germany for all its free speech deficiencies is still (get this!) another western society and an advanced democracy that exists in the 21st century.

In the end, the Bohmermann situation in Germany is something that really ought to be a big deal whenever an American comedian counts his or her blessings. For although the impact of PC is something like a rain on the parade, it is still safe to say that compared to other places, including similar western societies like Germany, doing comedy in contemporary America is an experience like no other. As they say, it’s a free country, live in it! And bring the comedy with you!