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Heckling and Hate Speech

February 27, 2010

Originally posted at speakwithoutinterruption:

At what point does comedy become hate speech? How free is free speech? Do we still have lines that comedians and other entertainers can’t cross?

Comedian Guy Earle

Canadian comedian Guy Earle is dealing with all these questions lately. Earle is being taken to the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal to face charges of hateful speech. The claim stems from an altercation Earle had with a couple of hecklers back in 2007. The women (one of whom is Lorna Pardy, the filer of the compaint) were in the front row of the club and allegedly insulted and heckled Earle as he tried to host an open mic night. After several back-and-forths between the comedian and the women, Earle unleashed what he admits was a pretty hurtful and offensive tirade.

Choice remarks from said tirade: “Come on, you’re fat and ugly — you’re not even lesbian”. Zing! He followed that up with some tasteful bits about oral sex and sex toys. Hold your applause until the end, ladies and gentlemen.

The night escalated after that, ending with Pardy tossing a drink in Earle’s face and the comedian breaking her sunglasses. So, all in all, not a good night for either party.

And now Earle is on trial for his homophobic remarks. Not only is Pardy asking for money but, since the incident, Earle claims it’s been difficult getting shows in Canada. Many gay rights groups have threatened to picket any club he appears at. He says his career has been tarnished and he is in a state of legal and professional limbo until this is all cleared up.

I’m not going to openly defend Earle’s comments or actions (or those by Pardy, which are just as despicable) but I am going to ask an honest, important question: Isn’t this an extremely dangerous precedent? By asking the high court of a nation to define what is hateful and offensive speech, are we not leading ourselves down a path to censorship? And I’m aware that this is a Canadian issue but if it can happen there, it can definitely happen here. Canada and America aren’t that different. Aside from the cute accents.

To tell a comedian that he can’t be offensive is one of the most backwards and ridiculous things a country can do. To fine someone for what they say, regardless of how much you disagree with it, goes against free speech. As infuriating as it may be, it’s not illegal to be an asshole. If that were the case, Rush Limbaugh would be locked away in a tiny cell (well, not TOO tiny — he’s a very large man).

You know I couldn’t get far without mentioning Michael Richards. As any American knows, he lost his head at a comedy club in Los Angeles back in 2006. He went off on a group of hecklers and said truly awful things, all of which was caught on camera. And what did he get for it? His name was forever smeared, his legacy tarnished. He still hasn’t come back from that (some could argue that he didn’t have much of a career before the incident but still…) However, he wasn’t dragged to court, he wasn’t fined by the state. The court of public opinion judged him and ruled out a reasonable sentence: obscurity. I’d say that punishment was just.


Mr. Earle may have been offensive but that’s not against the law. Furthermore, it’s a comedy club, where comedians spar with drunken hecklers constantly. To regulate what they can and can’t say is just as severe as taping their mouths shut. Would fining offensive speech make a more enjoyable night for all patrons? Sure. But it would also soften and hollow out the freedoms of comedians. Let us be clear: comedians exercise free speech in the truest sense of the term. They are the canaries in the coalmine when it comes to this issue.

Hell, even I wish we could limit some speech. How much joy would I get if Heidi Montag was fined every time she opened her mouth? How delighted would I be if my dear friend Glenn Beck was prosecuted for some of the inane, absurd hate he’s spewed? I’d be happier than a fat tick on a skinny dog. But, as a proud citizen of this country and a true believer in civil rights, I know that world can never be. Can we boycott what we dislike? Can we do all in our power to minimize the effect of hateful speech? Abso-freaking-lutely. But we can’t be taking our grievances over insults to the courts. We as patrons and customers hold enormous sway.

Perhaps Guy Earle summed it up best: this whole situation is just plain “retarded”.

Wait, I take that back. Maybe that wasn’t the best way to sum it up.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Justin permalink
    March 1, 2010 7:22 am

    The same thing is happening right now within the U. of California system after the “Compton Cookout” at UCSD. The school is trying to punish those who organized the party and encouraged people to show up and mock Black History Month. The only problem, and it has precedent in the American court system, is that the UC has no legal footing to stand on. Hate speech is still legal, even if people find it despicable. Since the party, a noose was hung in the UCSD library in the section for literary symbolism. In California, hanging a noose IS illegal. The student who confessed was suspended.

  2. Justin permalink
    March 1, 2010 7:24 am

    Also, Michael Richards did the same thing, except he used ‘nigger.’ He was lambasted in the media and apologized but no charges were brought… because its not illegal.

  3. Brandon permalink*
    March 1, 2010 7:29 am

    Yeah, I still feel Richards got what he deserved. And, look, no courts needed!

    The people I’ve told this about always respond with, “Well, it’s Canada, not America” but I still find the whole situation really disturbing.

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