What Free Speech Isn't

I can never seem to blog in a timely manner. Lots of things in the world happen which I feel are deserving of comment, but my comments always seem to come a few months after the fact.

Take that recent Daniel Tosh incident, for example. He makes a rape joke during one of his routines, gets heckled by a female member of the audience for it, and then proceeds to suggest (jokingly, I can only assume) that some males in the audience rape her in retaliation.

So far, all we have here is a guy being a dick, which is nothing new. What makes this particular example of extreme dickery somewhat different, however, is that the woman in question complained to friend, who then proceeded to voice her displeasure via her Tumblr account. The whole thing snowballed from there, ultimately resulting in a public apology from Tosh.

The whole thing, of course, sparked fervent, if predictable, defenses of Tosh and the First Amendment. That, in itself, is not that interesting. What I find more interesting is that, more often then not, these apologies completely miss the point.

Usually, someone trying to defend Tosh will point out that he has the right make whatever jokes he pleases and that people who get offended have the right to not attend his shows. That's all 100% true, and I will verbally defend Tosh against people who try to legally censor him but, that being said, some people seem to think that this also means that Daniel Tosh is not a complete asshole and that those who are offended should just shut the hell up and leave the poor man alone.

I don't know where this idea comes from. Too often, people seem to think that the right to free speech is supposed to function as some kind of special amulet against vocal criticism. They seem to think that the only acceptable way to make a statement against an offensive comedian is to avoid his shows. That's not how it works. Free speech just means that you won't go to jail for saying something unpopular. It does not mean that you aren't being a total buttwipe when you threaten to rape somebody in response to them finding your first rape "joke" unfunny. And, above all, it does not mean that other people won't take you to task for it.

You see this all the time. Person A says something patently offensive. Person B points this out, loudly. Person A retaliates by saying he has a right to say offensive things. At no point did Person B ever suggest that Person A not have such a right and at no point does Person A ever try to defend the actual contents of what he said.

So, yes, Daniel Tosh has the unassailable right to make offensive and unfunny rape jokes. We can all agree on that. But if that's the best defense of Tosh that you can muster, then I'm afraid you've offered no defense at all. At the end of the day, he may have the right to be an asshole, but he's still an asshole, and other people still have the right to call him out on it. Not only that, people have the right encourage others to call him out on it as well. Tosh isn't the only one in the country with the right to free speech, and douchbags aren't the only ones who get to say what they like.