F.R. Duplantier reporting Behind The Headlines

Week of:
October 21, 2001
Warning: Value Judgements Made Here

F.R. Duplantier

by: F.R. Duplantier

Are there no limits whatsoever to free speech? Does every vulgar, antisocial outburst deserve protection?

Rude displays of disaffection,
Incitation to insurrection,
And an artless screech
Are not "free speech"
And warrant no protection.

The limerick above elicited the following complaint from a student at Seattle Pacific University: "I normally enjoy your writing," wrote Greg, "but I find this diatribe against rap and especially its casual disregard of free speech to be offensive. You could say the same about nearly every form of popular music going back 50 years."

I could, and I would. In fact, the title of the limerick could just as well have been "Heavy Metal Corroding" or "Reggae-cide" or "Punk Junk," instead of "Rap Unwrapped." I couldn't care less about rap music, except in so far as it represents one of the more prominent and influential examples of the increasingly common practice of misinterpreting the Bill of Rights to protect subversive and antisocial activities.

In responding to Greg, I pointed out that "vulgarity, obscenity, blasphemy, and the advocacy of criminal behavior have traditionally been discouraged and proscribed, even in free societies -- especially in free societies. People may have the capacity to engage in this sort of speech," I conceded, "but no one has the 'right' to. In the recent past, music, film, and other art forms were censored -- and were arguably superior to the unexpurgated material of today." I asked Greg how he could "support a rapper's alleged 'right' to advocate murder and mayhem," but challenge my comparatively tame effort "to encourage debate on the limits of free speech."

Greg had conceded that "most rap content today is vile, sexist, and detrimental to the rise of blacks as a social class," but argued, nevertheless, that it deserves "the same First Amendment protection" as my limericks. "But that protection was never meant to extend to every possible form of speech, no matter how offensive or destructive," I responded. "No one has an unlimited right to say anything he pleases. No one has the right to advocate, endorse, or otherwise encourage the murder of policemen, for instance, or the rape, murder, and mutilation of women. Encouraging a crime is also a crime, with or without musical accompaniment. Claiming to be an artist -- or pretending that one is only describing a crime rather than encouraging it -- does not, or should not, give one immunity from prosecution."

Greg had maintained that "the vile nature of much rap content today should not diminish its value as an art form that can be used for noble ends." I took the opposite position: "A laudable example of rap music does not justify the objectionable versions." I urged Greg to "give more thought to the nature and limits of free speech. Poisonous ideas will destroy the mind as surely as poisonous substances will destroy the body," I warned. "There is nothing admirable about withholding judgment as the minds of our children are poisoned. There are limits to free speech, and they should be enforced."