Protesting "Free" Speech

US Constitution
This column was written by's Dick Meyer.

To what degree can intentional collective action influence the content of popular entertainment? To what degree should it?

These debating points have moved from op-ed pages and classrooms to board rooms and even the chambers of Congress following two very different news events: the farce of Don Imus and the tragedy of Virginia Tech. The arguments that have started about free speech versus hate speech versus dangerous speech are interesting and, I think, very important for us both purveyors and consumers of pop culture, even if they are unlikely to influence the "real world" much.

The Imus Issue has been framed this way: if a white radio performer can't say "ho," how come black rappers and other "artists" can? I don't find this particular double standard especially interesting or productive to argue about. What I do find interesting is the effort like that of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network to actually influence, or regulate if you prefer, the language that music stars use.

Russell Simmons, one of the biggest of rap moguls, put out a statement of behalf of the HSAN. I'll quote it exactly, despite its use of the offending words:

... there should not be any government regulation or public policy that should ever violate the First Amendment. With freedom of expression, however, comes responsibility. With that said, HSAN is concerned about the growing public outrage concerning the use of the words "bitch," "ho," and "nigger." We recommend that the recording and broadcast industries voluntarily remove/bleep/delete the misogynistic words "bitch" and "ho" and the racially offensive word "nigger."
Tipper Gore, circa 1985, would be proud. She should be.

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission reportedly is about to issue a report that recommends Congress pass laws that essentially would regulate or at least influence violent content on television, despite he First Amendment. After the media-age atrocity perpetrated by Cho Seung-Hui, the FCC report and the need to "act" are especially pressing. That sense of urgency will inexorably dissipate.

The FCC has apparently surveyed the research and found connections between violent entertainment and media imagery and violent behavior and imagination. I don't know if Russell Simmons and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network have surveyed the research and discovered that woman-hating, violent and racially degrading music foster, um, anti-social behaviors.

Certainly the idea that eliminating these three specific words from rap lyrics would have any real world effects is ludicrous. Certainly the idea that a new law, enforced by the FCC, regulating what times it is appropriate to air chain-saw massacres and slasher movies on cable would diminish the production of future Dylan Klebolds and Cho Seung-Huis is farcical.

But I applaud both these efforts.

How else can "society" – the collective "we" – fight back against an entertainment culture that is perverted? Put it another way: I applaud almost any attempt to protest and mock this piggish, warped media machine, no matter how ineffective, illiberal, anti-First Amendment, prudish or uncool it may be.

Regulating so-called violent content on television would clearly violate the First Amendment. On the other hand, arguing that some glorified snuff movie financed by multinational corporations and "private equity" is a form of free speech that must be protected strikes me as imbecilic. Please, if you are very into riding high horses, gallop on ... but you know exactly what I mean.

My own position on this is lame: I am a Burkean Tory who believes traditional moral and aesthetic standards must be enforced if a society isn't to lose its bearings; I am a classical liberal disposed to see any government coercion of speech and expression as an infringement of the most crucial liberty. And I am a pragmatist who thinks that there is no worse enforcer of standards than governments. That's lame, as I said.

But I do think it is important to support just about any form of protest about cultural violence, misogyny and racism that you encounter – philosophic consistency be damned. It's therapeutic, it's honest and perhaps, in some mysterious collective "hidden-hand" way, it may steer the market and the culture. If not, you tried.

TV Watchers of the World, Unite!

Dick Meyer is the editorial director of, based in Washington.

If you prefer e-mail to public comments, complaints or arguments, send them along to Against the Grain. We may occasionally publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones, sometimes in edited form.

By Dick Meyer