The Costs of Free Speech

by Gerald Dworkin

ScreenHunter_2941 Jan. 22 10.48In October, 1961, I was sitting in The Jazz Workshop, a San Francisco nightclub, listening to Lenny Bruce doing his infamous routine Are there any Niggers here tonight?

It begins with asking that question and proceeds to make comments using racial slurs for every racial group he could–kikes, guineas, wops, spics, polacks, sheenies, etc. His point, as he explains in the routine, was to routinize the words, so that they lost their shocking impact and obtained the status, as he says, of "I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" He was arrested that night not for the racial slurs but for obscenity—his "to is a preposition, come is a verb" routine.

Bruce spent most of his professional life being arrested and prosecuted by the police in various jurisdictions—always for obscenity. He was convicted in New York State, died during the appeals process, and in 2003 given a posthumous pardon by Governor Pataki.

I was therefore both amused and shocked to see in recent weeks that Bruce was under attack again. This time by some angry students and faculty of Brandeis University. An alumnus of the University had written a play about Bruce and it was scheduled to be performed on campus.

Some members of the theatre department raised objections and felt that more time was needed to produce the play "appropriately" and some students objected that the portrayal of its black characters was "ridiculous and vicious." The playwright decided to take the play elsewhere for its premiere.

This was one of the calmer instances of an attack on expression. In recent months student protests have led to cancellation of speaker talks, to disruption of invited speakers, to violence and destruction on campus. The names of Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, Ann Coulter, Richard Spencer and the campuses of Evergreen State College, Middlebury, University of Michigan, UC Berkeley, University of Florida, Yale, University of Missouri, are known to many. For a view of what one such protest looks, and sounds, like, click here.

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