Random Thoughts

America: Land of the Free?

April 15th, 2007

As an outsider (I’m Canadian) looking at the United States of America, I’m always a little baffled by the phrase “Land of the Free” as it relates to our neighbours to the South.

There’s no arguing that the US Bill of Rights has some of the best language around freedom in the world. The first amendment protects freedom of speech, of religion and of the press, and these are all definitely good things.

Coming from Canada, I look at the guaranteed language protecting freedoms in the US with a bit of envy, but that envy is curtailed by the reality of speech south of the 49th parallel.

The baffling thing to me, is how often I see these free speech rights being trampled, Oh no…a nipple!and how little the average American citizen is willing to do about it (in fact, most of the time the trampling is being encouraged).

During Super Bowl 38, Janet Jackson suffered her infamous “wardrobe malfunction”.

Whether the flash of a (GASP!) nipple was intentional or not is irrelevant. The fact is, that once the nipple made its way onto American television sets, events were set in motion which showed just how ridiculous the oppression of freedom of speech can be in “the land of the free”.

Moments after her jewelry laden-nipple made its way into the cerebral cortexes of American viewers, phones started ringing off the hook to complain about it. The reaction, in a land which is truly free to express itself, should have been “you don’t have to agree with it, but she has every right to express herself however she feels. If you don’t like it, don’t support her by buying her albums, or if you feel it’s CBS’ fault, stop watching CBS.” Instead, the FCC levied a $550,000 fine against CBS.

How is the FCC not violating the first amendment? “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”. Are they not a part of the US government? Do they not have to answer to Congress?

To me, the purpose of the FCC should be simply to regulate the distribution of the limited spectrum of broadcast airwaves. They should effectively be saying to CBS, “this is your broadcast spectrum in this market space”. Beyond that, the content carried in that spectrum is entirely up to CBS. They’ve licensed that spectrum, how they use it is their business. The FCC’s only purpose should be to ensure that the airwaves are not filled with stations attempting to overpower each others’ transmitters in an effort to gain market share.

Of course, there’s also voluntary censorship in the United States as well. When someone agrees to air their program on broadcast television, they agree to be bound by the “standards and practices” department of that broadcast network. This is fine. If you don’t want to abide by the rules, don’t air on the channel.

Had CBS said “we will never have Janet Jackson on our network again”, that would have been fine. The public would then be free to decide whether they supported CBS in that decision. To have the government tell CBS that they shouldn’t have let Janet Jackson expose her nipple on live television is ridiculous. It’s obvious from CBS’ reaction that they had no idea it was going to happen, and to punish them for it serves no purpose other than to cause CBS to over-react to people who may do something “negative” in the future, and potentially restrict free speech.

Of course the restrictive nature of speech in the United States doesn’t stop on television.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is not a government run organization, but it is a reaction to the threat of government oversight in the film industry.

Technically, an MPAA rating for a film is a “voluntary” move on the part of the film producers. Having said that, distributing an “unrated” film is a very difficult task in the United States, and “unrated” immediately implies that the MPAA would not have given it a rating less than NC-17, which effectively makes the films unmarketable.

MPAAI won’t get into the problems with how MPAA ratings are generated, but if you’re interested, I’d recommend checking out the documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated”. The issue with the MPAA has more to do with how it came about.

The MPAA is a reaction to public and government concern around “loose morals” within the film industry after World War I.

Basically, the public had concerns around loose morals in Hollywood films following the murder of director William Desmond Taylor and a starlet after an orgy involving Fatty Arbuckle. States and cities started passing their own censorship laws and several years laterFatty Arbuckle the MPAA as we know it was born in an effort to curtail the localized censorship laws.

In a land where free speech was truly valued, the studios would have challenged any attempt to “censor” their industry. And, given the very clear language in the Bill of Rights, they would have won. The industry would have come truly self-regulating, with the public deciding what to see based on content rather than ratings.

Many people believe that Hollywood films depict nothing but unrestricted violence and sex, and that they’re doing unimaginable damage to the American youth. People have every right to believe that, but that doesn’t give them the right to restrict the free speech of the studios.

The fact of the matter is, movie studios are interested in making the content that people want to see. Whether that content is Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or Deep Throat is irrelevant, so long as it’s profitable. Nobody, aside from the cash carrying individual members of the public, should have the ability to restrict that speech.

Now, in 2007, we have another case of free speech being trampled on. This time, the trampling is happening in the name of “race relations”.

Don Imus made a stupid, inappropriate comment on his radio show. There was an uproar about it, and Imus admitted what he said was inappropriate and apologized.

I’ve never listened to Imus’ show (I’m not even sure if it’s broadcast up here in Canada), but what Imus believes in all this is irrelevant, he’s been hung out to dry based on a single dumb comment. He has recognized that his comment was dumb, and he has apologized.

Had, after this incident, his ratings fallen and listeners stopped responding to his program, nobody would have had an issue with his being “cancelled”. The reality, unfortunately, is that he’s become a lightning rod for discussions around race relations in the USA. Ironically, Imus’ voice on this very important issue has been temporarily silenced.

I foresee some very strict laws against “race” discussion coming into play very soon, likely through the FCC. Since when is “freedom of speech” restricted to speech that is inoffensive?

The very nature of freedom of speech means you take the bad with the good. So long as everyone involved in a message is a consenting adult, nobody should have the right to take that away.

The Land of the Free? Sure…so long as you don’t offend anyone.

One Response to “America: Land of the Free?”

  1. CanadianGrrl

    I han honestly say that I never expected to see this sentence in my lifetme:

    “Whether that content is Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or Deep Throat is irrelevant”

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