In Defense of Kathy Griffin: Trump Stunt a Moment of Truth for Free Speech (Guest Column)

Lisa Bloom and Kathy Griffin -press conference - June 2, 2017-Getty-H 2017
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

"The whole point of free speech is to protect words and people who infuriate, disappoint or even disturb us," write the conservative pundits.

The left and right agree on very little these days, but one thing they all agree on is that Kathy Griffin’s photo stunt last week — holding up Donald Trump’s severed head as if she were an ISIS terrorist — was tasteless, stupid, cruel (think, for example, of Trump’s 11-year-old son seeing it), and worst of all for a comedian, not funny.

But buried under the avalanche of justifiable outrage, there was something redeemable, a teachable moment, as former President Barack Obama liked to call it, especially for Gen S (Snowflakes): an object lesson in free speech.

Griffin may have a hard time understanding this. After a sincere apology, she reversed course and declared herself a victim of the “Trump Machine” that is “out to destroy” her career.

“There’s a bunch of old white guys trying to silence me," she added.

Well, not these two old white guys. We support her constitutionally protected right to make an ass of herself, so long as she is prepared to accept the equally constitutionally protected consequences of her actions.

And the truth is, so does Donald Trump and his “machine.” This is something Kathy Griffin appears not to understand. The president is not trying to “silence” her. He is well aware that he has neither the right nor the power to do so. He didn’t have her arrested. He, his family, his allies, and even some of his political enemies are all doing exactly what Griffin did: Exercising their First Amendment right to respond with speech of their own.

It’s meaningless to protect words and actions we agree with and the people who say and do them — because they need no protection. The whole point of free speech is to protect words and people who infuriate, disappoint or even disturb us.

There’s a lot of American history behind this view.

To voice their displeasure with England over new taxes forced on them by the Stamp Act of 1765, American colonists held mock funerals for British officials they held responsible. In Boston Common, the local stamp master was hanged in effigy from a tree and then burned in the street nearby.

When it came time to write the Constitution for the new nation, the founders made free speech a central feature, enshrining it in the First Amendment. They understood that liberty and free speech are bound together; you can’t have one without the other.

Unfortunately, millions of young Americans — especially those in college — don’t seem to understand the concept of free speech. It’s not their fault. They’ve never been taught it. According to a Pew Poll taken in November 2015, 40 percent of Millennials are “OK with limiting free speech that is offensive to minorities.” When asked if they believe in free speech, a majority of Millennials say they believe in it except in cases of “hate speech.”

Real life confirms the poll numbers. On campus after campus, conservative speakers — on the rare occasions that they are invited to speak — are shouted down or even violently attacked. And, when conservative speakers are permitted to speak without disruption, universities provide “safe spaces” for offended students — i.e., students who fear becoming adults — replete with stuffed animals, Play-Doh, cookies, videos of frolicking puppies, and soothing music.

This is why we are making our film No Safe Spaces and why we are traveling the country to talk with students, professors, parents and cultural influencers. We want to bring to America’s attention a disturbing trend on college campuses, from Berkeley to Boston: the stifling of free speech, a basic and fundamental American right.

Whatever Kathy Griffin thought she would achieve with her disgusting photo stunt, she did — however unintentionally — provide us with a valuable First Amendment lesson. We stand for her right to do what she did, just as we stand for the right of Trump and anyone else to condemn her for it.

Both actions express the beauty of America and our beloved freedoms guaranteed by our first amendment. If only “old white men” still appreciate this, America as a free society is doomed. 

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio host and conservative commentator. Adam Carolla is a comedian, author and host of The Adam Carolla Show podcast.