The Limits of Free Speech

On February 20, 2017, comedian Andrew Schulz posted a picture of Ellen Degeneres with the Migos to his Instagram page. Schulz felt that the hip-hop group — whose song “Bad & Boujee” had recently hit number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 — had performed to an audience that would normally disagree with their diction. “Selective outrage is interesting to me,” the caption read. “If an athlete, politician or business man said ‘fucking on your bitch she a thot thot thot’ they’re a misogynist. Rapper says it they’re on Ellen. What’s really the diff between Ann Coulter or Milo and our favorite gangster rappers? [sic]”

Coincidentally, Yiannopoulos resigned the next day as a senior editor for Breitbart News after audio surfaced of him defending pedophilia; video of him calling victims “whining selfish brats” soon followed. The British journalist — who gained infamy as a provocateur for his writings on such subjects as “gay rights,” Gamergate, and the alt-right movement — had been met with a streak of social resistance before his eventual resignation. He was even banned from Twitter for his involvement in the online harassment of Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones. Schulz’s point, however, got me thinking: what is the threshold of free speech? Does it change depending on the platform and is said platform based on race, gender or profession?

Let’s start with the Migos. Two weeks prior to their Ellen performance, the trio were in the hot seat for their comments on fellow Atlanta rapper iLoveMakonnen’s decision to come out as gay. “We ain’t saying it’s nothing wrong with the gays,” Quavo — the group’s frontman — told Rolling Stone. He went on to suggest that because Makonnen, “first came out talking about trapping and selling Molly,” that his credibility would be lost. “That’s wack, bro,” he said. When Quavo learned that Makonnen was supported rather than attacked, he was shocked, sparking responses from his fellow group members. “That’s because the world is fucked up,” said Offset, while Takeoff remarked, “This world is not right.” The group would later issue an apology on Twitter after public scrutiny:

The irony that the group would later perform on The Ellen DeGeneres Show aside, it’s interesting to note the backlash they experienced given the pervasive amount of homophobia in hip-hop overall. Were their comments made in a song, it would more than likely have been accepted. But because it was during an interview, it became “real” rather than “artistic.” Artists like Tyler, the Creator and Eminem have released music detailing graphic violence, often directed towards women, without much noticeable fuss. Rick Ross penned lyrics alluding to date rape and was eviscerated, losing endorsement deals at the height of his stardom. At what point does the art reflect the true nature and/or views of the artist? At what point does their “free speech” end?

One could also look at Larry Wilmore’s speech at the 2016 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The comedian and Black-ish producer roasted the media, the presidential primary candidates and even then-President Barack Obama during his stand-up routine. The end of his speech, however, was nothing short of controversial: “Yo, Barry, you did it, my nigga. You did it.” Some felt that “the N-word” — regardless of its place in Black culture — was inappropriate for the occasion. It had been noted that calling the President of the United States a “nigger” was beyond disrespectful; on the flip side, this was not the first time President Obama had been referred to in those terms, and he had even used the word himself. The “n-word” often brings about the debate over who can freely use it without repercussion. It usually ends up being Black people, many of whom use it as a term of endearment; it’s often considered the Black version of “dude.” Wilmore is a Black comedian, and President Obama laughed off the joke while shaking his hand and embracing him. Was this a pass from the Oval Office?

Comedy, similar to hip-hop, is a form of entertainment with little filter. Many comedians routinely push the boundaries of acceptable speech for various reasons. For example, a recent Netflix-original Dave Chappelle special had the comedian diving into jokes about O.J. Simpson, superheroes who “rape to save,” and Caitlin Jenner. In 2015, Louis C.K. joked about pedophilia on Saturday Night Live, calling into question the recent commentary of Yiannopoulos. What makes these different? When the art becomes real, like Bill Cosby’s previous jokes about date rape?

Similar to Yiannopoulos, 24-year-old Tomi Lahren is viewed as a provocateur for her scathing commentary on Beyoncé, Megan Rapinoe, and Black Lives Matter. The conservative pundit was recently fired from TheBlaze following a brief period of suspension sparked by her pro-choice comments on The View. This raised an interesting conundrum: Lahren was fired by Blaze founder Glenn Beck, a former Fox News host and self-proclaimed “constitutionalist”. Beck, who openly opposed Donald Trump on the campaign trail, hired Lahren — an open Trump supporter — to host her show on his network. She routinely courted liberal outrage, such as when she called Black Lives Matter “the new KKK,” and her “free speech” was protected. However, when she turned her sharp tongue toward fellow conservatives, she lost her job. According to Beck, she was fired — in some way, shape, or form — due to misrepresenting her views. She also may or may not have been difficult to work with. If this was the case, why did they wait so long to deal with it? When did her “free speech” truly get her into trouble?

In the words of Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco, “Freedom ain’t free.” Freedom of speech does not grant us carte blanche to say everything that enters our head. There are consequences for our words and actions as we’ve all seen and experienced. Does context play a role in those consequences? The simple answer is “yes.”

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