Lenny Bruce Tried to Teach Us Something About Free Speech

comedy club

Until recently, I didn't know much about Lenny Bruce. I knew he was a controversial and groundbreaking comedian who had some trouble with the law, but that was about it. Now that I've watched a couple of documentaries about him, I can't pretend to know much more than that, but I do know that he was repeatedly arrested, prosecuted, and even imprisoned merely for performing his act at comedy clubs. In other words, he faced criminal prosecution because some people found his speech to be offensive.

One of the documentaries made a point of noting that it wasn't members of Bruce's audience who complained (which is the sort of thing we'd see today). Audiences at the time seemed to realize that going to a comedy club after midnight to see a comedian with a reputation like Bruce's might involve exposing themselves to some "obscene" speech. Imagine that! They were prepared to handle it like adults. Unfortunately, the police were not so forgiving. They dispatched officers to Bruce's shows to enforce archaic obscenity laws. It is hard to believe that this happened right here in 'Murica, but it did.

Many of us on the political left have heard stories like Bruce's before, and we've generally had the luxury of associating this sort of thing with the political right and their Christian extremist brethren. Historically, they've been the source of most threats to free speech. That has not been the case for some time, as we've seen the rise of some disturbing trends on the left that are every bit as eager to restrict speech. I've even heard some on the left call for criminalizing certain forms of speech. To be clear, that means they'd like to see people arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned for saying things they regard as offensive. It seems the lessons of Lenny Bruce have been forgotten.

One of the documentaries made two points I found fascinating, both of which made me feel pretty good about 'Murica until I thought about what has been happening on the left. First, they pointed out that no comedian in the United States has been incarcerated for doing their act since Bruce. I thought that seemed like a powerful thing. Years after his death, Bruce was pardoned by the governor of New York. It seems like almost everyone agreed that how he was treated was a mistake and something that should not be allowed to happen again. That is real progress.

The second thing was something I already knew but hadn't thought about for a while. Several of the countries many liberal Americans envy for certain things (e.g., France, Germany, Britain) have hate speech laws which are enforced. I realize that the U.S. has hate crimes laws where someone might receive a longer sentence for saying certain things during the commission of a crime, but this is very different from hate speech laws that criminalize the speech itself and require no other criminal offense. Comedians have been arrested in some of these other countries. I might be wrong about this, but I think that Canada might even have similar laws. As backward as 'Murica may be in many respects, it seems like this is one of the things we got right.

As I mentioned previously, the sobering thing about all of this is that support for free speech has been eroding on the left. Surveys have shown that growing numbers of people support laws that would criminalize hate speech. In other words, they think that people who say things they find offensive should be jailed. Can you imagine the arrogance that takes? The left used to be nearly united in thinking that the pearl-clutching fundamentalist Christians who wanted to ban various forms of art were horribly misguided and even dangerous. I never thought I'd live to see them decide those fundamentalist Christians were right and worthy of emulation!

I'm sure some will object that the motives are different and that these differences matter. I'm not sure I agree. The Christian extremist might want to lock me up because I've spoken out against their defenseless "god" and therefore a heretic who must be confined, if not burned alive. The social justice warrior might want to lock me up because I've criticized one of the "gods" various "brown people" believe in and thus guilty of cultural insensitivity, colonialism, toxic masculinity, and the like. If the end result of both is that I get locked up for criticizing religion, I'm not sure there is much of a difference.

Lenny Bruce is one of the comedians many other comedians credit with inspiring them to do what they do. They saw his fearlessness and refusal to conform. They recognized that he was right and those who oppressed him were wrong. They credit him with paving the way for what they've been able to do. I think about George Carlin in this context and how much he taught his audiences about the value of freethought and the need to speak truth to power. And that right there is probably the source of my greatest disappointment with the modern far-left: those lessons seem to be lost or explicitly rejected.