Do We Have The Right To Free Speech Even If It Offends?

“It was just a joke!” or “I was only kidding!” Those were always my responses as a kid when I had offended someone. This past week that was also the response of comedienne Kathy Griffinย after she posted a picture of herself with a fake, apparently decapitated President Donald Trump head. The United States collectively lost their minds over the stunt. Kathy Griffin was fired from CNN on which she had a very successful New Years Eve show with Anderson Cooper. Sponsors of her comedy tour and shows cancelled their contracts. Her current stand up comedy tour is in shambles after venues have cancelled her. Personally, I shrugged my shoulders until I gave a little more thought to the national reaction.

In January 2015 Islamic terrorists stormed the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing twelve people and injuring eleven others. The provocation for this attack was a cartoon of religious leader Muhammed which was considered offensive.

Sony Pictures and

In December 2014 Seth Rogen released his comedy movie that focused on a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jon-un using two inept journalists who had landed an interview him. The movie did very well in the United States. Six months prior to release of the movie the North Korean government threatened action against the United States if the movie were allowed to be released. Columbia Pictures delayed the release and edited the film to be more acceptable to North Korea. A month before the release of the movie the computer systems of Sony Pictures, which is Columbia Pictures parent company were hacked by a group that the Federal Bureau of Investigation said had ties to North Korea.

So wait, let me get this straight, everybody in the United States condemned Kathy Griffin for a tasteless joke, but we all thought it was funny when Seth Rogen and James Franco made a comedy about trying to kill another country’s leader? Either both were offensive, or neither was. We can’t have it both ways.

The United States Constitution’s First Amendment gives us the right to free expression. Kathy Griffin isn’t being prosecuted for her “joke” but at the same time is suffering career altering consequences. So, we do have the right to make jokes, but there’s no law protecting us from unintended consequences of those jokes. My issue isn’t with her joke, it is with the attitude of those who didn’t condemn a joke about killing a foreign leader, but did condemn a joke about killing our own leader.

This also brings into question our freedom of speech. If I make a bad joke at work, on my blog or in a book I write, should my employer have the right to fire me like Kathy Griffin’s did? At what point do jokes go too far? Can they go too far if they are “only jokes”? If something appalling is done in the name of art, whether it be comedy, songs, or paintings, should there be some standards which apply and are enforced? Should someone be policing the internet where all types of tasteless and offensive things are posted every day? If I post an offensive rant on my blog, should WordPress have the right to take it down against my wishes?

I know this wasn’t funny as my Saturday posts usually are, but I’m seriously curious as to what everyone else thinks about the Kathy Griffin controversy and the questions I asked in the last paragraph.

Have a great Saturday! ~Phil

39 responses to “Do We Have The Right To Free Speech Even If It Offends?

  1. This is a thought provoking post Phil. I read an article about the comedian this morning. I am not sure I agree with policing of what we say but I think we have to learn when ‘jokes’ go too far. You made a good point about Seth Rogan – I agree there are double standards.

  2. Hmmm… got me thinking! Free speech should always be allowed… but we need to be mindful too!

  3. Let me preface what I’m about to say with two things: A.) I have not had my coffee yet. B.) I am a ginormous fan of Kathy’ Griffin. I’ve seen her perform live a couple of times and I think she’s hilarious.

    For me it was all wrapped up very easily with a comparison a writer I follow on Twitter asked, how would you feel if this was Ted Nugent holding Hillary Clinton’s head? I would feel exactly the way I felt when I saw Kathy Griffin’s photo, disgust. In this political climate where Sarah Palin puts crosshairs over pictures of politicians and one of them gets shot, where our own president casually suggests that 2nd amendment folks could take care of Hillary Clinton or Ted Nugent talks about Obama sucking on his automatic weapon, you can’t depict the beheading of our president (even one most of us loathe) and not expect to suffer consequences for that.

    The Seth Rogan thing was about people standing up for their right to express themselves because a government was trying to shut them down. That’s why people rallied around that. And, the Charlie Hedbo thing is pretty obvious, no one deserves to be murdered over art, no matter how offensive or distasteful.

    So, I support Kathy’s right to express herself however she deems fit, but feel absolutely no sadness for her when CNN fires her and no one wants to give her a venue for her comedy. That’s just sometimes the way the cookie crumbles when you decide you’re going to cross the line. The only way our speech is absolutely protected is by making it so that the government can’t shut it down. If private enterprise or private citizens see fit to do so, that’s perfectly legal. If enough people wanted to see her on CNN then CNN would cave and keep her on. She never really had rave reviews on there anyway, so it didn’t surprise me at all that they canned her.

    Rant over. Going to get coffee now.

  4. The analogy between Kathy Griffin’s “stunt” and Seth Rogan’s movie is very apt Paul. With respect to the “justice” of our contradictory responses, all I can say is that our palate probably plays a larger role than our intellect.

  5. The right to free speech should be absolute, even when it makes us uncomfortable. I do believe there should be an exception for speech or actions that could incent hate crimes… but one could argue the words of the US President has done this on multiple occasions. In my opinion, and as you point out, there is incredible hypocrisy depending on the “speaker” and the subject… to your point, planing to kill some vaguely suspicious (to Americans) foreign leader vs the severed head of the revered president of the United States!
    As much as I don’t like it, I do understand a company firing one of its representatives when they demonstrate a lack of judgment that results in backlash. Depending on the nature of her contract they probably have every right. I don’t know the circumstances that the picture came to be, but depending what she said about it (e.g., it was a statement about the extreme lengths of political commentary or some such blah blah) I might think it in poor taste but done with artistic freedom, and in that case perhaps CNN could stand behind the artistic license of their employees. But that’s a tough one for a company to stand behind when I suspect for most people, at a minimum what Griffiths did would be considered in bad taste.

  6. I agree with Christine. Other than that, I don’t know enough of the context to comment. I do know that there were comedians in the UK 20 or 30 years ago who could have got away with doing something similar to what Griffin did, but it would have had to have been in a humourous context. As I understand it, there was just the photo and no context in Griffin’s case.

  7. In my opinion, Kathy Griffin crossed a line.
    Do comedians do that on occasion? Yes.
    Does she deserve to be vilified like she is right now? No.

    I say that for exactly the same reason you expressed. Substitute virtually anyone else’s head for Trump’s and would people still be going ape-shit? I don’t think so. There is huge hypocrisy at work here.

    I’m completely baffled why comedians think some things they do are even remotely funny, but that’s what they do. It is their job to be edgy and challenge society.
    Once upon a time, we would have simply ignored someone behaving in bad taste. Without an audience, they would stop. The joke failed.
    Today however we throw fuel on them instead and light it on fire.
    Wait, maybe I should be censured for having made a remark like that.

  8. I think both situations are deplorable. I just hope people don’t excuse Kathy because other bad taste moves go unchallenged.

  9. As April said, it’s all about context. Perhaps us Brits don’t get offended very easily? ๐Ÿ˜‚

  10. I’m not a fan of WhatsHisFace, but I didn’t find it funny. I thought it was gross and it didn’t make me smile. I wasn’t offended, but I’m hard to offend. I don’t like censorship AT ALL. There are consequences to every single thing we do and say, and while I think it’s important to be authentic — one must surely expect consequences of some sort.
    An artist produces what an artist feels.
    But then EVERYONE reacts.

  11. For her stunt Kathy Griffin was cursed
    But Trump’s done more and a hundred times worse.

  12. Great post, Phil. Made me think hard. But will respond later. Today, my thoughts are with the people of London. I think the world has gone mad. Sigh.

  13. I think there was a fair amount of backlash with the Seth Rogan movie at the time. I also don’t think it did that great at the box office, it quickly flamed out. I think what Kathy did was in bad taste but she can and did do it and companies can do what they want too. I met her once, not the most pleasant celebrity I have met by far.

  14. Its a consequence of her free speech. She’s obnoxious. I don’t see it as a big travesty, but the people have spoken. Her d list career has just dropped a grade. Go away, Kathy. My opinion. ๐Ÿ˜€๐Ÿ˜€

  15. I think her humor is a bit puerile and contrived, but the backlash is way too hyperbole and just as puerile and contrived.
    It was an idiotic skit, and nothing more.

  16. Your observation “can’t have it both ways” is spot on, Phil. Not that I find Kathy Griffin’s stunt funny but sheesh … Talk about over-reaction! I’m thinking back to President Obama’s term when Democrats were criticized for being “too sensitive” about cartoons depicting big eared monkeys and other stereotyped caricatures as well as “jokes” about assassination plots and worse and think that a certain group in our population is just as thin-skinned as # 45. Ms Griffin’s joke fell flat and she’s definitely learned her lesson. Unfortunately, good taste and humor are all kind of nebulous definitions that fit into the same category as obscenity and the famous statement of “I’ll know it when I see it!” However, we have a right to free speech and that should be diligently protected. Anita

  17. Personally, I don’t agree with Kathy Griffin’s image. It wasn’t funny and I’m not sure how she thought that would be a good idea. In my latest post, I talked about how even though I don’t like Trump, I thought the picture she posted was disgusting and uncalled for. At the same time, she can do whatever the hell she wants! We should be protected under the First Amendment to say whatever we please, and who are we to tell anyone else they can’t say something. She has the right to say whatever she wants to say, just like I have the right to criticize her for her actions.

  18. Would it be OK if I cross-posted this article to I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the author. There is no fee, I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our commugnity and I liked what you wrote. If “OK” please let me know via email.


  19. First of all, Kathy Griffin and CNN don’t really seem to go together, so good for her for severing the ties. Also, there are a lot of dumb a-holes out there who post negative and useless things that if his or her employer sees-good, lesson learned; be more stringent about the hiring process, background checks, whatever is necessary for the job to be filled by the right person.
    ๐Ÿ™‚ If you want some comedy, please check out the humor section on my page-may cause a few laughs, maybe not, feel free…have a good day-

  20. Free speech is a cornerstone in a progressing democracy, in my opinion. One should be free to speak and offend, so goes for the offended/receiver, where it gets the opportunity to counter with just as much freedom of speech. An open discourse will hopefully deem the most rational and worthy winner

  21. While I am no Kathy Griffin fan by any means, I just don’t find her funny, I think that this is a great example of freedom of speech. She had the right to portray her comedy in her own way (although this just seems like another shock and awe stunt that she does regularly), some people had a right to vocalize their offense to the joke, the companies had the right to provide consequence to actions she took, and the whole cycle will play out with someone else in just a matter of moments. She wasn’t jailed, she never went missing, and she won’t be stoned in public as in other countries or in past times. While this joke didn’t offend me, it takes way more than that, it did what it was supposed to do, it got people talking about Kathy Griffin, which is what she only seems to want. Should she have lost her job? That is tough but when you are in the public light as much as she forces her way into that then yeah. If you shame a corporation that is what happens, it sucks but that is reality. Remember they are people too now ๐Ÿ™

  22. Bad taste isn’t against the law. Yet. ๐Ÿ™‚ Great post.

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