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Free Speech?

by on Apr.23, 2011, under Uncategorized

The recent decision by the BC Human Rights Commission to award money to an insulted comedy patron seems like a scary precedent. After all, being a comedian does not guarantee a decent income. It doesn’t guarantee any degree of respect from society at large or even the entertainment industry. The one thing that it should guarantee is a license, a license to say whatever one wishes, regardless of social convention. The court jester was free to insult the king and nobles without fear of punishment because of this license. It is amazing to think that medieval society was more enlightened than the current state of Canada.

The counter argument is that the license can be revoked if the comedian fails to elicit laughs. Some people argue that Guy Earle is not really a comedian and was simply harassing a lesbian couple because their public display of affection angered him. The mere fact that he was on stage presented as a comedian should protect him from any legal proceedings. If he’s not funny, he should be fired, pilloried, blacklisted and never booked by anyone again. This effectively revokes his license. I think this rule should apply to any comic who isn’t funny, offensive or not. If nobody’s laughing, get off the stage. If Guy Earle assaulted or attacked the women, that is a matter for the law. It is not a matter of comedy vs. human rights. It is a matter of this asshole vs. that asshole.

However, there is no reason for the Human Right tribunal to involve itself in any case of comedy offending a citizen. Any decent joke is upsetting to someone in some circumstance. The idea of a comedy show is that anything goes. Patrons are free to attend or not. Patrons who do attend are free to leave if they don’t like it. Audiences are not captive and can vote with their dollars.

It should go without saying that a comedy venue is a sacred space. Sacred in the sense that nothing is sacred. Preventing comedians from offending in a comedy venue is equivalent to blacking out portions of the good book in a house of worship because somebody who is not part of the congregation dislikes it. If the Human Rights Commission is saying that this principle of freedom to offend is not understood as implicit, then comedy shows need to take a cue from other litigation-sensitive businesses. In the same way that candy companies are forced to print labels warning that their products may have come in contact with peanuts or other nuts, comedy shows will get in the habit of posting a warning notice. It will likely say that the show may contain material that will be offensive to some sensibilities. The venue and the performers cannot be held responsible for any damage to the feelings, morals, or egos of anyone who enters the premises. By crossing the threshold, you, the patron, agree to give up any right to pursue legal action for compensation for any offense. It seems strange that people in the 21st century need to have this spelled out but, if the courts and tribunals are so ignorant of a convention that reaches back to, at least, ancient Greece, then it is up to the comedy community to make it absolutely clear.


6 Comments for this entry

  • Joe Bodolai

    Outstanding Simon. This is a horrible precedent and such a misuse of the term “human rights”. I wonder what George Carlin would have to say if he were here. Also, does this mean that comics can now sue hecklers?

  • Tony

    I don’t disagree with most of what you’ve stated except to point out that (a) Court Jesters did not have full licence to say whatever they wished. Even they knew that if they went too far in offending the King, Queen, or other powerful member of Court they risked being flogged, tortured, or losing their head just as much as any non-jester. (b) I disagree that a stand-up comedy stage is a “sacred” place any more than any stage, street corner, or any other place could be considered ‘sacred’. Entering an audience for a stand-up performance doesn’t automatically mean you’ve consented to be heckled, harassed, or otherwise be held up to ridicule any more than a person walking down the street deserves to have any of those things done to him/her by a street corner soapbox preacher.

  • Thom

    A comedy venue isn’t a sacred space. But it is a space where a lot of damage has been done to oppressed minority groups over the last two centuries. The law had to intervene in Vaudeville days to end the practice of “blackface minstrelsy” that humiliated and oppressed African-Americans. I’m glad blackface entertainers were forced to stop. Maybe it can’t always be left up to entertainers to decide what lines are legal to cross. Being on a stage doesn’t give a license to someone to commit a crime, including existing legislated hate crimes.

    You haven’t given any details as to what public statements or actions were deemed to hurt the complainant. But to take the position that those details are irrelevant because the comedy club is church and the comedian is God… well, I disagree.

  • Brent

    Great article, Simon. I do think it was unfortunate that Guy Earle was fined, seriously, what could he have said that could make a woman need therapy, I feel that his definition of free speech might have been too loose. If he was doing a dark, edgy, offensive bit on stage about lesbians, regardless if he was funny or not, then I say he was within his rights. That’s what stand-up is. When he made it personal, and especially after he left the stage to confront the women, it became another matter. What other job are you allowed to be vulgar and homophobic? I wish I could have seen transcripts because I understand that these women certainly played their part, however, Guy Earle did not have to say what he did. It wasn’t part of his act. It was an attack, and the Human Rights Commission is here to protect people from such things. I think they were wrong in their decision, I do feel there has been an injustice to Guy Earle, but I still maintain that people have the right to be offended. Can any comic say anything anytime to anyone regardless if they weren’t interrupting the show? I know there’s talk about a scary precedent being set, but maybe it’s because of Guy Earle. Now, talented, risk taking comics can’t be at their best because some court jester didn’t know how to do his job.

  • Martha E. Chaves

    I’m all for freedom of speech so I’m just going to say it: Guy Earle is an unfunny shithead douchebag. Now, do I think he deserved to have to pay that amount for being an unfunny misogynist homophobic not creative comedian when dealing with a heckler? No.Plus, I also do think that the HRC should be dealing with bigger fish to fry. Misogyny, homophobia and bullying should be stopped everywhere.Let’s begin to wipe it out from pulpits accross the nation; let’s eradicate it from the speeches of people that work for the government, ie. Stephen Harper, and then we can worry about what an unfunny comic who did not draw first blood, but could not really deal with the hecklers, has to say.

  • Elis

    Totally agree with Joe. One cannot simply act like that in a situation like this covering the deeds with “human rights” term. Ridiculous

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