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Speak No Evil vs. The First Amendment

Politics aside, Sen. Trent Lott learned the hard way that some "free speech" in America bears a price. Being ostracized in the media and eventually losing his top post in the Senate proved that there are some things a person just shouldn’t say. Of course, he’s not the first to learn this lesson. Pitcher John Rocker comes to mind. So do Spiro Agnew, Bill Maher, Jesse Jackson, Ross Perot and Fuzzy Zoeller. It’s interesting that, for these offenders, no one argued "free speech" in their defense. Instead, public debate centered on the message.

What bugs me is how we selectively apply an unwritten code of ethics to speech depending upon the source. "Artists" get a free pass when it comes to hate speech and the glamorization of illegal activity. Many receive Grammys honoring their mean-spirited ideals. It’s time we saw a change, which can happen one of two ways. We can either lower the bar and give people like John Rocker and Jesse Jackson more leeway, or we can raise it for all, holding everyone to a more noble standard. I propose the latter.

Hence, Eminem would face the same scrutiny as Trent Lott and be subject to similar social scorn and indignation. Lott never boasted about raping his mother. He never told young people, "Follow me and do exactly what the song says: Smoke weed, take pills, drop out of school/Kill people and jump behind the wheel" (the rapper’s song "Role Model"). Had Sen. Lott advocated such behaviors (or the countless other disgusting things some entertainers promote), he never would have gotten invited to Strom Thurmond’s now infamous birthday bash!

I find it repulsive when a musician is venerated for telling young people how to be successful drug dealers and pimps. Sure, there are some isolated pockets of outrage, but nothing like what Lott experienced. I support Eminem’s and his anti-social peers’ right to say what they want within the law. However, I don’t believe being a musician should guarantee immunity from social analysis and accountability.

Did you know that there are at least nine forms of expression that are not covered by the First Amendment? For instance, it’s illegal to express clear and immediate threats to national security (e.g., disclosing information about troop movements during wartime). Libel and slander are not protected. Neither are "obscenity" or "fighting words" (e.g., abusive language yelled by a demonstrator at a police officer). And did you know it’s illegal to use deceptive or misleading advertisements to induce or entice minors to engage in illegal products or activities such as drugs, alcohol or prostitution?

Yet many popular CDs—especially in the rap genre—"advertise" illegal substances and behaviors. How can a musician encouraging a young fan to kill his "haters" be that different from a gang leader ordering his crew to take out a rival gang-banger? That point isn’t lost on Darrell Scott, father of slain Columbine student Rachel Scott, who said recently, "We put Charles Manson away for life. He didn’t kill anyone, but he influenced his followers to do so. Eminem has more influence and more followers than Charles Manson." For me, the issue really boils down to our children and the world they’ll someday inherit. What’s best for them? I’m glad no one can legally yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater or "I’ve got a bomb!" on an airplane. I support action against these forms of unprotected speech.

Similarly, I oppose entertainers using their platform to lure our children into criminal activity. It’s a rational approach our culture needs to get behind. Am I just a dreamer? Possibly. But 140 years ago, people suggested that slavery was abhorrent and immoral despite being socially acceptable. Things can change. But only if America quits playing favorites and takes a stand for what’s right.

Published January 2003