Another brief reminder of how “freedom of speech” actually works: Joe Rogan edition

In trying to boil down the “Joe Rogan Experience” over the past week or so, this is the best I’ve got:

2022 Joe Rogan: Nobody can piss off the world more than I can with my weird take on COVID.
Pre-2022 Joe Rogan: Yeah… Hold my beer…

Podcaster Joe Rogan and his $100 million sugar daddy, Spotify, spent the last couple weeks understanding that free speech isn’t always consequence-free speech. Rogan most recently got into hot water when it turned out he needed to apologize for dropping more than a few “n-words” into his podcasts over the past 12 years:

New York, NY (CNN)Joe Rogan issued an apology on Instagram Saturday after a compilation of the podcaster frequently using the n-word on his podcast spread widely on social media.

Rogan used the word more than 20 times in the clips from different podcast episodes, which he said were compiled over a span of 12 years. In his apology, Rogan said it’s the “most regretful and shameful thing” he has ever had to address publicly.

“I know that to most people, there’s no context where a White person is ever allowed to say that, never mind publicly on a podcast, and I agree with that,” he said. “Now, I haven’t said it in years,” Rogan added.

Rogan also addressed a video of him comparing a Black neighborhood to a Planet of the Apes movie. “I certainly would never want to offend someone for entertainment with something as stupid as racism,” he said.

If Rogan’s goal in this situation was to distract from his unfounded medical claims regarding COVID, he succeeded in the best-worst possible way. Prior to this mix-tape of racism, Rogan was spouting unscientific nonsense about the coronavirus, and medical professionals called for Spotify to do something about this:

A coalition of hundreds of doctors and public health experts have called out Spotify for allowing Joe Rogan to spread “false and societally harmful assertions” about the coronavirus and vaccination on the streaming platform that hosts his wildly popular podcast.

In an open letter published Monday, more than 270 medical professionals urge Spotify to stop “enabling its hosted media to damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance.” Rogan, whose show reaches an estimated audience of 11 million people an episode, has repeatedly downplayed the need for coronavirus vaccines and used his platform to flirt with misinformation about covid-19.

(Side note: How does one “flirt with misinformation?” I’m imagining a stock broker in a bad hairpiece telling some lady at a bar that he’s really Donald Trump…)

Multiple musicians including Joni Mitchell and Neil Young also put pressure on Spotify with requests to have their music removed from the streaming service, due to Rogan’s coronavirus commentary. As a result, Spotify issued a statement so broad and generic, it could easily have just said “We favor… Um… Stuff…”:

“We know we have a critical role to play in supporting creator expression while balancing it with the safety of our users,” the C.E.O., Daniel Ek, who is also one of Spotify’s founders, wrote in a public letter. “In that role, it is important to me that we don’t take on the position of being content censor while also making sure that there are rules in place and consequences for those who violate them.”

In the wake of this rolling cluster-mess, a good number of people are complaining that anyone coming after Rogan or Spotify is engaged in censorship/killing free speech. As per usual, this tends to take the form of the mic-drop argument-ender: the meme…

Truth be told, censorship and freedom of speech are often misunderstood because people think they have the right to say or write anything they want with impunity. Here’s a quick recap of how the First Amendment actually works:

It does:

Prohibit the government from suppressing unpopular speech or unpopular press. City, county, state or federal officials cannot stop a person from expressing an opinion or punishing that person for doing so. Those same officials cannot prevent a newspaper, magazine or other “press” from putting out content that might be unpopular.

It does NOT:

Cover everything ever said or printed. The law has deemed some forms of speech (fighting words, words that create a clear and present danger etc.) to be unprotected. The traditional example is that you can’t yell “FIRE!” in a crowded theater. The law has also deemed some content (child pornography, for example) to be irredeemable in any way and thus not be afforded protection under the law.

Prevent the speaker (or writer) from ramifications from free expression.The law says the government, or any of its agents, can’t prevent you from publishing a story that your university president is running a pedophile ring out of the basement of the student union. However, when that story is proven to be false, you better believe the president can sue your pants off for libel. The law protects speech, but it also protects people FROM speech in many cases, which is why we have to be careful every time we publish (or say) something.

Stop private businesses from suppressing or punishing speech.Private institutions are perfectly capable of hiring or firing people for a wide array of reasons. Joe Rogan got $100 million from Spotify for his podcasting services. If they are unsatisfied with those services, they can examine the contract and find a way to sever ties. They can tell him what they will or won’t allow under his contract in terms of speech or information.

Censorship is when a person is prevented from speaking, publishing or otherwise expressing themselves. Joe Rogan is not in that situation, even if Spotify decides to smack him around or fire him. If Joe doesn’t like whatever Spotify chooses to do, he can go somewhere else. He can complain that his speech is being suppressed (he’s technically right), but he can’t say his First-Amendment rights are being violated. Trust me, if I had a First-Amendment right to earn $100 million to talk about stuff where “I don’t always get it right,” I’d have done it by now.

Force other people to listen to you or be happy about what you say.  If there were laws against ugly speech that bothered people, Fred Phelps would have never been let out of his own house. Constitutionally speaking, Joe Rogan can stand on a street corner and drop “n-words” until he drops dead. That doesn’t mean other people have to sit by, totally entranced by this and not express their displeasure. These other citizens can try to shout him down, ignore him entirely or go to the opposite street corner and scream something else.

In the case of the COVID controversy, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and other musicians have asked that their music be removed from Spotify if the streaming service decides to keep Joe Rogan. They have that right to ask for that change, given their displeasure over Rogan’s speech. People who think it’s unfair that the musicians are doing this can choose to speak out against this or stop listening to “Heart of Gold” or whatever. In short, you have the right to say stuff, but so does everyone else. You have a right to ignore them, as does everyone else.

Promote “cancel culture.”  The thing about the First Amendment is that it’s essentially content neutral. You want to tell people you hate dogs, that’s fine. You want to tell people you love dogs, that’s fine. You want to tell people you want to eat dogs, that’s fine. It’s gross and you’ll likely be home alone a lot on weekends, but it’s not against the law.  With the legal exceptions outlined above (and a few others), the type of speech doesn’t really play into whether that speech should be “free” or not.

It’s important to understand that free speech was always supposed to work this way, in which bad or dumb speech got knocked on its keester by good or smart speech. The whole concept of a “marketplace of ideas” is to give everyone a chance to speak so we could pick out the best ideas and use them as we saw fit. The ones that were dumb got discarded and the people who proclaimed those dumb ideas could either stick with their dumbness and be alone or come around to better ways of doing things and be part of those better ideas.

Joe Rogan is not being “cancelled” because people are telling Spotify that its service shouldn’t promote Rogan’s thoughts on COVID or support a guy who used the “n-word” at least 20 times on his podcast. That’s free speech. Spotify can say, “OK, we hear you, but screw you anyway.” That’s free speech as well. Joe Rogan can say, “I don’t care what anyone thinks. I’m going to tell people they can cure COVID by drinking a mixture of fuel oil and children’s tears, all while I read aloud from ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn‘ live on my podcast.”  That’s free speech, too.

The reason why Spotify ISN’T doing that and the reason why Rogan IS repenting like a Catholic priest getting caught in a strip club comes down to money. Spotify doesn’t want to lose its listeners and thus lose revenue. Rogan realizes that it’s going to be reeeeeeaaaallly hard to find another $100 million job out there, especially since he can’t shoot twice as well as Steph Curry.

They’re not being cancelled. They’re choosing to be pragmatic.

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