Government can’t censor Eminem, but citizens can
Winning three Grammys in one night is no small achievement. But controversial rapper Eminem has accomplished something even more astonishing this year. He's made allies of Christian conservatives on the right and gay activists on the left.
Speaking on CNN, Vice President Dick Cheney's wife Lynne characterized Eminem's music as “the most extreme example of rock lyrics used to demean women, advocate violence against women, violence against gay people.”
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) told the Washington Blade that giving awards to Eminem placed a stamp of approval on “lyrics that promote hate, prejudice, and violence.”
Now that's a dubious achievement: lyrics so vile and violent that folks on both sides of the culture wars are shocked and appalled.
There's an irony here. Some of the gay activists who protested the Grammys are the same people who cry “First Amendment” when Christian groups protest art that they find offensive to their faith.
But when private citizens boycott products, picket theaters, or pressure businesses to stop sponsoring TV programs, they aren't violating the First Amendment. On the contrary, they're exercising their First Amendment rights.
The First Amendment speaks only to what government — not private citizens — may or may not do.
People on either side of these culture wars don't have to agree with one another, but they should respect the freedom of every citizen to exercise his or her fundamental rights.
There's also another way in which the First Amendment is misused in this debate. When defending a decision to record and distribute controversial lyrics, music industry leaders are fond of invoking the artist's “First Amendment rights.”
“We don't approve of Eminem's lyrics,” they tell us, “but we're opposed to censorship. By selling his records, we're only upholding the artist's First Amendment right to free expression.”
Arguments like that give the First Amendment a bad name.
Of course, Eminem has a constitutional right to express himself. And yes, record companies have a constitutional right to produce Eminem's records without government censorship. But they are under no constitutional obligation to do so.
Record companies aren't the government. If a private corporation decides not to record Eminem or any other artist, no government censorship is involved, and no one's constitutional rights are violated.
Corporate responsibility — not the Constitution — is what is at issue. Beneath the smoke screen of the First Amendment, here's the real bottom line: Eminem sells.
When is the First Amendment properly invoked in the Eminem debate? Any time the government tries to do the censoring.
Just last summer, city officials in Auburn Hills, Mich., tried to prevent a video from being shown at an Eminem concert. A judge stopped them, ruling that government may not use prior restraint to censor art. That's how the First Amendment is supposed to work.
If you find Eminem's lyrics offensive, the solution is to do exactly what GLAAD, Lynne Cheney and others are doing: exercise your First Amendment right to speak out. The answer to bad speech is good speech, not government censorship.
And if you like Eminem's lyrics (or if you want to make money selling them), just say so. Don't tell us “the First Amendment made me do it.”