The Rap on Freedom of Speech

Hip-Hop Summit Action Network

Hip-Hop Summit Action Network
Hip-Hop Summit Action Network
How should we feel about the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network’s (HSAN) recommendation that, “recording and broadcast industries voluntarily remove/bleep/delete the misogynistic words ‘bitch’ and ‘ho’ and the racially offensive word ‘nigger’.” It’s not a free speech issue, is it?

I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This is, of course, the 1st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

You could read the 1st Amendment and come away with the notion that you were entitled to “freedom of speech.” After all, it says so, doesn’t it?

Well, not exactly. If you attended grade school in the United States you will probably remember when your social studies teacher posed the question, “If you are entitled to free speech, can you scream ‘fire’ in a crowded theater?” The answer was “No,” and everyone got to debate the relative merits of the Bill of Rights and how the law applies in the real world.

Over the years, you have probably seen some legal documents and court decisions that speak about the 1st Amendment granting us “Freedom of Expression.” This is legal shorthand — the word “expression” is not used in the paragraph. George Bernard Shaw once said, “Every profession is a conspiracy against the laity” and this is certainly true here. We do not have the freedom to “express” ourselves — at least not the way expression is defined in the dictionary. “Freedom of Expression” is a legal term of art that combines the legal notions contained in the 1st Amendment.

In fact, The Constitution of the United States, The Bill of Rights (Amendments 1-10) and the rest of the Constitution focus on what our Government can and cannot do — the 1st Amendment has nothing to do with private workplaces or privately held environments. So, for example, your boss may be well within his rights to prohibit the discussion of any subject in the workplace. And, although anyone can publish a newspaper or magazine, there is absolutely no law that says any particular newsstand has to carry it.

Every radio station that airs Rap Music already bleeps-out words that their standards and practices departments deem unfit for broadcast. Most recorded music companies put warning labels on songs with potentially offensive lyrics and others produce “clean” and “uncensored” versions of songs so that consumers can make an informed choice. Does more need to be done?

Consumers are free to ignore any product that is offensive to them. So something else must be going on here.

People describe art in many different ways. Is a work “art” or is it “trash?” Could there be a more subjective question? In my view, art cannot be ignored. As opposed to craft which one can easily ignore, or trash which does not get any attention at all.

Rap is an art form. It is uniquely American and it reflects the lives and times of the people who create it. For the record, I am not a fan. However, I have a huge amount of respect for the artists who create Rap, the related musical forms and their sub-genres. Anyone who is brave enough to put their emotions and personal experiences on display for others to view, hear, scrutinize, love, hate or — heaven forbid — ignore, deserves our collective respect. Artists are special people with special gifts and we are all better for the work they do.

The 1st Amendment doesn’t prevent corporations from telling artists what they can or cannot say, it simply prevents the government from punishing you for your words.

For all of recorded history there have been gatekeepers guarding the distribution of media. In the last century, it has been the bastion of big media. This is no longer the case. Since the advent of inexpensive production tools and Social Networking on the Internet anyone with access to a computer can publish anything to a worldwide audience with very little effort. It may not be profitable, but the medium is uncensorable. You can say what you want the way you want to say it and, if it is any good, it will find an audience. This is heartening.

Still, we live in a blockbuster, hit-oriented culture that is driven by big business. If you follow the money, you will find that the media business has conglomerated into a very small group of very large companies. Their clients are also a relatively small group of very large companies so where does that leave artists who have something to say and wish to find a very large audience?

It leaves us with very strange bedfellows. Prior to the Imus/HSAN situation, I could not imagine myself standing on a soapbox defending a Rapper’s right to say what ever they might want to say. I personally despise everything about this particular musical genre and I truly loath the lyrics that are the subject of HSAN’s proposed ban. That being said, I completely disagree with the idea that anyone has the right to tell any artist how to express and realize his or her art. This is more than sliding down slippery slope; it is a forced march in the wrong direction.

If you want to fix Rap lyrics, fix the society it reflects. Would you try to fix Blues lyrics because they depict a sad and cruel world? Would you try to fix or change Country lyrics because they depict the trials and tribulations of life in rural America, of course not.

Rap, like all art, is a mirror. If you don’t like what you see, do what you can to change it — but don’t silence the artists. They speak the only truth we can all hear. Shelly Palmer

About Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is the Professor of Advanced Media in Residence at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and CEO of The Palmer Group, a consulting practice that helps Fortune 500 companies with technology, media and marketing. Named LinkedIn’s “Top Voice in Technology,” he covers tech and business for Good Day New York, is a regular commentator on CNN and writes a popular daily business blog. He's a bestselling author, and the creator of the popular, free online course, Generative AI for Execs. Follow @shellypalmer or visit



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