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Have You Heard the One About Free Speech...?

11/08/2014 12:17 BST | Updated 08/10/2014 10:59 BST

Recently, Jeremy Clarkson got into spot of trouble when some claimed he had used racist words in a broadcast and an outtake in his highly rated show, Top Gear. Of course, Clarkson had courted controversy before these incidents occurred. For example, he once said that striking public sector employees should be 'executed in front of their families'.

Nevertheless, Clarkson seems to flourish in the sludge of these type of disputes. After all, his public persona is constructed to a large degree around his battles against the perceived political correctness of the typical Guardian-reading liberal lovey. In particular, he draws on his own brand of humour to slay what he sees as the dour, small-minded, left-wing seriousness of a liberal metropolitan elite in contradistinction to the 'common sense' of his own social and political beliefs.

But even in a free and open society, should Clarkson in fact be allowed to say what he does in fact say? Or should he be reprimanded by his bosses at the BBC and by society at large for seemingly offensive words that drip from his mouth? If he is reprimanded, does this then demonstrate that we live in increasingly Orwellian times, where people take offence at humorous words and try to stamp out a bit of harmless fun?

On Wednesday 13 August 2014, I'll be giving a talk at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe about these and other related issues on the connection between free speech, humour and the public sphere as part of the Beyond a Joke? Comedy, Culture and the Public discussion series. For some time now, I've been interested in the meaning of free speech and how it can be used to further democracy and participation in society. At the same time, I am fascinated by everyday life and the meanings people gain for themselves through popular culture.

Today, both of these areas - free speech and popular culture - can be seen to operate most graphically in social media. Ordinary people post their comments and views online and, as a result, exercise their right of free speech. Naturally, some post very sombre and serious reflections about the state of the nation, but many others post comments about social life through jokes, humour, parodies and satire.

In recent years, events like the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring have also demonstrated that when it comes to social and political change people still wish to have a visible presence in public space when they debate and discuss issues of importance. For these people, social media are truly effective as instruments of free speech when linked to good old-fashioned street politics. Again, however, an analysis of a phenomenon like Occupy shows that humour and entertaining public spectacles are a vital part in how these groups get their messages across in the media.

All well and good, one might think. From Jeremy Clarkson to protestors at Occupy, we all have access to this civil right called 'free speech'.

But to what extent is this really the case? Does an offensive joke told by Clarkson have the same equal status as a joke told by somebody standing outside St Paul's Cathedral holding a placard advocating more equality in society? Certainly, one dominant idea about free speech - what is commonly known as the 'marketplace of ideas' approach - argues that, well, yes, we all have equal access to free speech and we can all therefore get our voices heard in the public sphere.

Surely, though, this is a rather narrow and simplistic picture of free speech. We know that society isn't fair or equal, that some people have enormous resources while many, many others have relatively few, and that a minority of individuals like Clarkson dominate the public sphere over and above the vast majority of people.

If this is the case, then it follows that free speech doesn't simply operate in something akin to a 'marketplace' full of equal people, but instead functions in real conditions of power and inequality. Not all voices have an equal chance of being expressed or heard in society. Correspondingly, not all humour contributes towards a thriving public sphere of debate and discussion, but can in fact serve to reproduce inequalities by denigrating and marginalising specific topics or subjects. Under these circumstances, many people think twice about talking in the public arena of their concerns, culture, passions, lives, or worries for fear of being ridiculed by voices that are more powerful.

In my talk at Edinburgh, I'll be mapping out what I consider to be a better and more inclusive way to define free speech over and above the 'marketplace of ideas approach', and I'll give a real-life example of how my more inclusive definition of free speech operates in practice through both humour and within public space.

So come along to the talk and we can all engage in humorous free speech together about, well, humour and free speech.

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Beyond a Joke? Comedy, Culture and the Public discussion series is presented by the Centre for Comedy Studies Research (CCSR) and Big Difference Productions (Organisers of Dave's Leicester Comedy Festival). It includes a series of exciting talks by leading Comedy Studies researchers on the big and controversial issues in the comedy industry, including comedy and free speech, the dynamics of comedy taste and the relationship between comedy and disability.

11.10am to 12.10pm

Wednesday 13th - Sunday 17th August 2014

Just the Tonic Community Project

82 Candlemaker Row

Edinburgh EH1 2QA

Wednesday 13th August: 11.10am - 12.10pm

Laughing about Free Speech: How Humour Helps Free Speech Thrive in Public Spaces

John Roberts (Brunel University London)

Thursday 14th August: 11.10am - 12.10pm

'Working' For Your Laughter: The Rise of the British Comedy Snob

Sam Friedman (City University London)

Friday 15th August: 11.10am - 12.10pm

Finding the Funny in Disability: Comedy and Disability on the British Comedy Circuit

Sharon Lockyer (Brunel University London) and Geoff Rowe BEM (Big Difference Company)

Saturday 16th August: 11.10am - 12.10pm

Kicking Against the Pricks: The Satirical Wisdom of Tory Anarchism

Peter Wilkin (Brunel University London)

Sunday 17th August 11.10am - 12.10pm

From Royston Vasey to Number 9: The Dark Comedy of Pemberton and Shearsmith

Leon Hunt (Brunel University London)

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