Today, March 7th, is the 26th anniversary of 2 Live Crew’s Supreme Court victory, which protected parodies from copyright infringement lawsuits. The song they parodied was Pretty Woman, by Roy Orbison. Freedom of Speech was honored. The Supreme Court ruled that parodies are covered under the fair use doctrine. Weird Al Yankovic and a host of comedians breathed a big sigh of relief.
In celebration, 2 Live Crew then recorded a parody of a popular Bruce Springsteen song which they called “Banned in the U.S.A.” Bruce didn’t sue them. Yay Bruce!
I loved the original, Born in the U.S.A., but I never heard the parody before today. Maybe you haven’t either, so here’s a link.
When you finish watching that clip, you might want to enjoy President Andrew Shepard’s speech from the movie The American President.
Then, to put it all in context read the words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
This was so important, that it was the very first Amendment in the Bill of Rights, but the ink was barely dry when Congress passed the Sedition Act and President Adams signed it into law on July 14, 1798. Fortunately, that was quickly repealed, but Americans have always had to fight to keep this right to the free expression of controversial subjects. Comedians, musicians, and writers have led the fight, but it’s an uphill battle we all face.
The tough part, of course, is defending the right of free speech for those with whom we disagree, but that is the core of the Amendment. The only way for us to understand both sides of an issue is to listen to both sides of an issue. Unfortunately, most of us on the left are now glued to MS-NBC, while those on the right are joined at the hip to Fox News. I admit that I’m guilty. The Internet doesn’t help me, either. It records what I watch and then steers me to more like-minded material. Once in a while, I can watch a right-leaning comedian like Nick Di Paolo, but I still don’t watch Fox News.
The thing is that when we stifle free-speech we impede our chances of learning something new. I read yesterday about a government employee who got fired for his controversial ideas on handling the Coronavirus epidemic. He kind of suggested that, because 80% of cases are mild and many will show no symptoms, instead of strict quarantines, we should all mingle freely so that the epidemic could spread rapidly and then be over just as quickly. His main idea was that in the long run the virus was going to infect just as many people, but instead of the epidemic lasting for years and destroying businesses, it would just be a short time before things could get back to normal.
This sounds like a crazy idea, but I remembered back when I was a little kid. If either my brother or I caught something like measles, my mother, a nurse, would immediately tell the other one, “Go play with your brother.” This way both of us had it at the same time and she could take care of us both at the same time, instead of having to deal with two sick kids at two separate times. Instead of having the illness in the family dragging out for a month or more, it was all over in a week or two. Just look at how many large conventions were cancelled recently, and how the stock market tumbled. Imagine what will happen if this drags out for years.
So maybe there was some merit in the idea, even if it was a bit harsh and hard to swallow. The thing is that he was just expressing an idea, “spitballing” the problem. By firing the man, it, in effect, stifled any new thinking on how to handle the emergency. What good is a think tank, if it is limited to ideas that are only “inside the box”? The whole idea of brainstorming is to explore as many ideas as possible, even bad ones, in hopes of finding the best ideas.
People getting fired for expressing their ideas is not unusual, but it is wrong. Some ideas are terrible ideas, but in rebutting these ideas we might come up with some good ideas. Some ideas, like Nazism, are repulsive, but people should still be allowed the free expression of their ideas. I know that when I listen to someone with whom I strongly disagree, I try to pay closer attention to what they are saying, so that I will be able to present a better argument against them. Some ideas may be dangerous, but controlling ideas and punishing free thinkers is even more dangerous.
Long after his death, the spirit of Lenny Bruce still lives.
Peace & Love, and all of the above,