FREE-SPEECH IS NEVER REALLY FREE

UNDERSTANDING THE RECENT ATTACK ON DAVE CHAPPELLE AND WHAT IT MEANS FOR WRITERS

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     I remember the summer of 2012. It was the first time I had ever received national recognition for my writing. For several years while in undergraduate and graduate school, I worked as a freelance writer. My essays were largely about religious topics. But it wasn't until I wrote a blog post about rapper Meek Mill's song 'Amen,' exploring its spiritual connotations, that my writing career and identity were irrevocably altered in the public light.

     I wrote about why the city of Philadelphia (where I was living at the time) would not appreciate such religious defamation. I also condemned Meek Mill's earlier song, Scared Money, in which he employs rape as a revenge tactic against the wives of his enemies. 

     This simple blog post was taken up by the Philadelphia Daily News, BET, and MTV.  Despite being a Hip Hop fan myself, I was portrayed in the same light as anti-Hip Hop crusaders, C. Delores Tucker, Calvin Butts, and Tipper Gore. My name became a household byword in hip hop circles if only for the summer.

     I couldn't walk around the city without being stopped or recognized. Some chastised me, claiming that I had no right to criticize the rapper. Others issued veiled threats, showing up at my place of worship and identifying my whereabouts. I remember talking to a few young teens in Philadelphia during an evangelism trip, and they immediately dismissed my words when they recognized who I was.

     It was at this point that I knew that free speech has a price.

    I would always be connected with the words I uttered, the words I wrote, and the words I said. And the ramifications of my ability to express those words had an impact on my life that I will never fully comprehend.

DAVE CHAPPELLE AND CHRIS ROCK ATTACKS

     With what happened to Chris Rock at the Oscars and what happened recently to Dave Chappelle being attacked on stage, free speech has returned to the forefront. Both of these incidences shed more light on the topic of free speech in American society, which we will see much more of in the next years.

     Both Rock and Chappelle are offensive comedians, but it should go without saying that neither deserves to be attacked. What is surprising to me, is that it took this long for this to happen. Why? Because free speech, with the advent of social media and digital communication, has the potential to upset a larger and more diverse group of people in society who are already feeling alone, separated, and severed from society. And when free speech, no matter how serious, is used to insult a man's sick wife, as Rock did, or to degrade the LGBTQ community, as David Chappelle does on a regular basis, or call out a gangsta rapper who promotes revenge rape in his music, it is likely that someone will object. And if we earn a living off of our speech, whether on a stage or at a book signing, we risk being confronted by individuals who enjoy the same liberties as we do.

     Another specific problem in the context of free speech is when the speech is defamatory, false, or derogatory. Surprisingly, this country allows us to do so publicly! But, as social media observers, we frequently fail to embrace and recognize that individuals who have the power of free speech with a wide audience bear a greater responsibility for understanding when to speak and when not to speak, and being willing to incur the cost for both.

THE SPIRITUALITY OF FREE SPEECH

     As a religious writer, I recall the issue of free speech in the New Testament. The gospel of Jesus Christ emphasizes the risk of free speech. Whether you are a believer or not, the story of Christ displays the personification of God's living Word in the person of Christ. But his message (free speech) is rejected and scorned, with the messenger himself, being denounced and publicly executed on a tree for all to see. In the words of Billy Graham, 2000 years ago, God sent a love letter to the world. The world, 33 years later, sent the love letter back with a bloody stamp, marked, "Return to sender."

​     There is a cost to free speech. Sometimes even our lives.

    Let all of us who have a voice understand not only the power of our words but also the consequences of our words. And in doing so, let us be sure that our words are worth the risk of sharing them.

By Joe Johnson, Creator of SMS Novel Interactive

5/4/22