Aug 18

Humour and Freedom of Speech

Humour and Freedom of Speech. It’s an interesting concept as it’s one that comes up again and again throughout history. Well, modern history at least. You might be thinking: “wow Jase, this is a bit of a dry boring topic for your blog”

Well, stick with me as it contains some useful intel on the dons and don’t of giving a humorous speech. I was drawn to write a post about it because of the forthcoming humorous speech contest held annually with Toastmasters. Now, in the rules themselves it states:

“The speaker should avoid potentially objectionable language, anecdotes and material”

In the judges points section there is a section called appropriateness. Which talks about appropriateness to the speech’s purpose and audience and:

“reflecting good taste.”

This is something that’s puzzled me ever since I joined Toastmasters. Generally they have a rule where you don’t talk about sex, religion or politics (unfortunately the juiciest topics). Which I persoanlly think is fair enough. You’ve got to be careful that you’re not upsetting people’s sensibilities and so on. It’s also good prep for the business environment as you don’t really want to offend your audiences there and “bit the hand that feeds you”.

Here’s an example of where I’ve personally fallen foul of this Toasties rule:

I was once wrapped over the knuckles for making a crappy joke about Americans. But it wasn’t a slur on an entire nation, it was a slur against one particular American person based on actual experience. Suffice it to say she never returned. Was that the result of me?

Now, it’s something that I only partially regret. I say partially because it’s all well and good for people to have a pop at the Brits (bad teeth, the food, perceived homosexuality of an entire nation and so on).

Sometimes what happens is that what one person means as good-natured ribbing is taken as highly offensive xenophobia by the ribbee.

Here’s some advice given to the late british comedian Bob Monkhouse by a jewish actor Alfred Marks:

“To an audience that’s one hundred percent jewish, you can get away with almost any good Yiddisher story. But with a large percentage of non-Jewish people present, even the best of those jokes can sound racist. So play it safe. Only use a tale that pokes affectionate or respectful fun at God’s chosen” – The Compelete Speaker’s Handbook

After speaking to Toastmasters International about this they said that they don’t have a strict rule over content, but they don’t actively advocate using the aforementioned topic areas. Also, you would have to be clear on what constitutes appropriateness in your own club.

If you think about it, they cannot actively enforce such a rule because it goes right against the freedom of speech.

Fundamentally, the freedom of speech grants people to speak freely without censorship. It’s recognised as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is also recognised in international human rights law under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). (Don’tcha just love the internet??)

Then there’s the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which is part of The Bill of Rights, that essentially prohibits laws that infringe freedom of speech.

“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 important when it comes to comedy and humour away from the Toastmasters environment. When you’re an artist who uses humour who have to be aware of your audience. As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, if you are performing to corporate audiences you cannot be as offensive as you would be in comedy clubs.

Although one could argue that this breaches human rights, you also want to take into consideration that it would be good to play by a company’s rules and get re-hired.

I believe that ultimately, comedy affords the performer a greater freedom of expression than, say, acting does. With actors there are more things at stake; the actor’s job, the director’s job, the writer’s, the producers’ and so on. Many comedians don’t take this licence. Many that do, interpret it to mean they have to be offensive as possible in the mistaken belief that they are being funny and radical.

This might have worked for a brief period in Britain in the 1980s when “alternative comedy” ushered in a new comedy boom that led to words previously omitted from the comedy stage being bandied around with gusto. But not so any more.

There has been some debate over freedoms of speech in the U.K. on the last few years.

In 2005 British comedian Rowan Atkinson led a coalition of some of the U.K.’s prominent actors and writers to the British Parliament in the hope that they would get them to review the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill 2006 as they believed that the bill would give religious groups a “weapon of disproportionate power” which could lead to self-censorship amongst artists and those who use satire.

The bill has wording which attempts to amend the Public Order Act of 1986:

Section 29A Meaning of “religious hatred”
In this Part “religious hatred” means hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief.

Section 29B:
(1) A person who uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred.

Atkinson stated at the time:

“I appreciate that this measure is an attempt to provide comfort and protection to them (the Muslim community), but unfortunately it is a wholly inappropriate response far more likely to promote tension between communities than tolerance.”

The House of Lords passed amendments which effectively limit the legislation:

“A person who uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening… if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred”.

This dealt with the abusive and insulting concept and as a result required the intention, not just the possibility, of stirring up religious hatred. So satirists are safe… for now.

Yes, I believe humour, and the use thereof, shouldn’t be censored and allowed full reign under the freedom of speech. But when it comes to delivering that humour in certain institutions, and contests, like Toastmasters’ Humorous Speech Contest, then you have to just be careful and be aware of the sensibilities of others. Know your audience.

As humorists and comedians we should be able to exercise our freedom of speech, but we also don’t want to go around offending people willy-nilly. Especially if we’re a) hoping to get paid or b) we have to continue our membership of Toastmasters.

Also, I have heard time and time again how comedy club comedians were hired for a corporate function only for them  to go “off topic” and offend the audience.

There are arenas specifically for full freedom of speech for us such as comedy clubs on solo shows in theatres.


  1. Jeremy Jacobs

    Where does this leave the You Tube videos of Bernard Manning?

  2. Jason Peck

    hey Jeremy

    You make a valid point and in all honesty I don’t know.

    But I wonder was his act any more controversial than the early performances of Richard Pryor with his “anti-white material”. Granted they were in a different league as performers.

    If memory serves Manning always defended himself by saying that they were “just jokes”. And he always came across as intelligent and articulate whenever a talk show tried to portray him as an imbecile.

    You also have to remember that the era during which he became famous was the 1960s and 1970s; a very racist time in the U.K. and the U.S.

    Sometimes comedians adapt their act to suit the times, like George Carlin once did. And other times they don’t and risk going out of fashion, like Bob Hope and, I guess, Manning.

    But I think we have to honestly ask ourselves:

    Are You Tube clips of Bernard Manning’s act any more controversial than speeches by BNP leader Nick Griffin or those by Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan?

Comments have been disabled.