Tracy Morgan & A Lesson on the First Amendment

All that's really missing is the tank top and the 40oz beer bottle.
Tracy Morgan, a C-list actor who continues to hold onto the coattails of still-successful Saturday Night Live alums for dear life and a paycheck, has come under fire recently for remarks he made at a recent Nashville, TN comedy club performance. His comments, called by most a "homophobic rant", were made during one of his stand-up routines. Some of the quotes are as follows: (I warn you, they are horrendous and use exceptionally foul language.)
  • Gays need to quit being p*ssies and not be whining about something as insignificant as bullying.
  • Gay is something that kids learn from the media and programming.
  • My son “better talk to me like a man and not in a gay voice or I’ll pull out a knife and stab that little n*gger to death.”
  • “I don’t “f*cking care if I piss off some gays, because if they can take a f*cking dick up their ass… they can take a f*cking joke.”
One of the more famous quotes from his set adds on to the third one stating that if one of his sons ever came out to him that he would stab him. Charming, huh? Now, obviously the language is exceptionally offensive, violent, and - in my opinion - quite dangerous, especially given the recent rash and upswing of GLBT teen suicides and bullying.

As word of this rant blew up Twitter, Facebook, and the rest of the social internet media this past weekend, many folks immediately took sides. While most seemed to be calling for metaphorical blood (job loss, public stoning, and other totally peaceful protest measures), others said that he's a comic and he's just doing what comics do. In other words, it's an issue of Free Speech. Another test of how much we want to hold onto the First Amendment. Chris Rock, another, more successful comedian, came to his defense initially, tweeting out this:

I don't know about you, but I don't want to live in world where Tracy Morgan can't say foul inappropriate shit.

Seeming to say that, despite what Morgan said, and despite how offensive it might be, the ability for a people to say whatever they want to say is sacrosanct. We treasure our Bill of Rights so completely, that there are many times when situations like this arise that we choose the side of Rights for All rather than start on the slippery slope of censorship. However, Chris Rock is making headlines today for changing his tune in regards to Morgan's rant.

Tracy morgan is a tad off we all know that so when tracy says something i usually don't take it anymore serious than i would a statement from gary busey or flavor flav .when i first heard the statement i thought it was offensive but it also reminded me of my father saying ill kill you if you ever bring home a white girl but after reading everything tracy said . wow i get it that shit wasn't called for and i don't support it at all. now can i please go to the tony awards without getting my ass kicked .

Basically, his reaction was a bit like mine late on Saturday when I first got the news: a comedian is getting in trouble for doing what a comedian does. Then I read the comments. I cannot see any possible scenario, joke set-up, punch line, or conversation in which these statements could ever have been intended as humorous. They are not funny. They're not self-deprecating. They're not good natured. They do not come from a place of love. Who knows? Maybe they come from a place of alcohol and illegal drug use. Maybe he really has a lot of love for the gay community, but this isn't showing it.

Since this situation has come to light, Tracy Morgan has spent his every waking moment trying to convince the world that he was simply making unfunny jokes and that he really loves all things gay.
“I know how bad bullying can hurt. I was bullied when I was a kid,” he told GLAAD. “I’m sorry for what I said. I didn’t mean it. I never want to use my comedy to hurt anyone. My family knew what it was like to feel different. My brother was disabled and I lost my father to AIDS in 1987. My dad wasn’t gay but I also learned about homophobia then because of how people treated people who were sick with that. Parents should support and love their kids no matter what. Gay people deserve the same right to be happy in this country as everyone else. Our laws should support that. I hope that my fans gay, straight, whatever forgive and I hope my family forgives me for this.”
And, yes, this may have been an instance of him attempting to appeal to a crowd, to work out new material, to be a satyrist, or...whatever. But, most comics that are asked about this seem to think he took it one stab your son comment too far. Comedian, actress, and out lesbian Wanda Sykes made the following remark:
Tracy has the right to say whatever he wants to say, just like we have the right to say, not acceptable. WE as a country. We used to picnic to watch public hangings, but WE figured out, that was some sick shit. No, society does effect the comedy stage, that's why you don't see anymore white comics in blackface. And it's up to us if we laugh or walk out. This isn't about comedy. What Tracy said is dangerous. We r just trying to protect our kids. Peace and love!
And this is really my point in writing about this today, to look at the question of freedom of speech. Most people, when faced with an issue like this, immediately jump on the Free Speech bandwagon. It's a slipper slope argument. If we begin censoring folks like the KKK or Westboro Baptist Church or Tracy Morgan because of their hate-filled speech, then there is a precedent set, right? And since we haven't crossed that line yet, we want to make sure that we don't start crossing it. We want to be able to preach our message of love and tolerance and peace just as loud, if not louder, as the guy in the pointy white hat wants to preach death and annihilation.

But...haven't we already started to legally limit what people can and cannot say? Haven't we already crossed that line? You cannot defame or knowingly lie about someone in media (libel and slander). The 1973 case of Miller v. California has set out what is known as the Miller Test for obscenity. Basically, if the surrounding community deems a work obscene, if the work is patently offensive, or if it lacks political, literary, artistic, or scientific value, it can be taken down or censored. Obviously, there is a lot of gray area with this type of censorship, but's there in the books. We cannot threaten one another, because threats of imminent harm are banned, according to the Supreme Court. We cannot use flagrant language that would incite a riot (how ironic, right?). And the list goes on.

Basically, the standard rule of thumb when it comes to one's rights is that you have the right to do whatever you want to do, unless it begins to infringe on another's right not to have those things done to them. The Westboro Baptist Church, various fringe Pro-Life organizations, the KKK, and several other groups around the US continue to learn this lesson, as they are given standards of distance they are allowed to be when protesting things like military funerals, abortion clinics, and minority gatherings.

However, something that tends to get a lot of people in trouble, and what tends to get the most press, is how far your freedom of speech is allowed to extend before you are fired from your job. Can you, for example, show up to work with a smile on your face and then go home and dedicate an entire blog to your hatred for your workplace? Yes and no. Yes, you could do that. But, not if you want to keep your job. Most workplaces these days have strict no blogging policies, and they tend to extend to you having a blog at all, despite whether you use it to speak ill of your place of employ.

Can you go to your public high school or college and wear a shirt saying "All Jews Should Burn"? Not if you want to continue going to that school. And, again, there are grounds in the "fighting words" section of what you're allowed to express that would act as precedent in situations such as these.

The point is, feel free to say what you want. You, most likely and in most circumstances, will not face jail time for being a hate-filled bigot, or a disliker of your job, or a hater of a politician. (Except in the event that you threaten someone with imminent harm, in which case you might just land yourself in jail.) But, if what you say is not liked by your employer, or home owner's association, your landlord, your spouse/partner, etc., you may very well may find yourself unemployed without anywhere to live and alone. There are ramifications for speech. You continue to work at the pleasure of your employer, and if you start spouting off things that get negative attention, they may not want you working for them because if they keep you employed, people may not shop at their establishment.

Such is the situation with Tracy Morgan. He is a famous comic, but he's also known as the guy from the NBC show 30 Rock. Thus, his employer Tina Fey was called in to comment on his antics. She politely and humorously said that this wasn't the person she knew, but that if his comments were sincere he might want to remind himself that he would basically not have a job on television if not for GLBT costume designers, script writers, make-up artists, actors, producers, bosses, and printers of paychecks.

So, next time you find yourself in a sticky First Amendment situation... Before you start shouting about how you have free speech and can say whatever you want, remember that while the law won't touch you, you might still suffer the consequences in more fiduciary ways.

Love and Lyte,

Fire Lyte


  1. I think alot of times, comedians choose to use "shocking" topics and lots of swearing because they really aren't that funny themselves:/

    You mentioned someone who might publicly complain about their workplace. Back in the days of MySpace, a co-worker had several blog posts about our company and workpalce drama. She actually had the nerve to use the company's name and the names of the people she was complaining about! Needless to say, someone discovered it and showed our boss. She was then promptly fired.

    While we have the right to freedom of speech, it doesn't mean there won't ever be consequences! Sometimes, it's just not worth the trouble to speak your mind, especially if you are putting your paycheck on the line.

  2. This sort of situation reminds me of when Don Feder was invited to UMass by the campus Republicans to give a talk about how hate crimes don't exist. Thoroughly detestable stuff. But then the gays and the leftists (and some people who just like to shout, too, I'd expect) showed up to his talk and shouted him off the stage. On one hand, he had no place in our community and his hateful drivel was unacceptable to us, but on the other, I couldn't help wondering if this sort of community immune reaction wasn't a violation of Mr. Feder's right to expression. I would hate to be guilty of that, not to mention rampant NIMBYism.

    I guess I can't really be the bigger person. I was exultant at the result of the Feder protest; I'd be pleased with Mr. Morgan suffering from the public backlash, too. I'll deal with the guilt later.


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