Free Speech at What Cost?

A poster plasterer pastes new reviews at the Pleasance venue

Professor Joe Goldblatt

Before I sat down at my desk the phone rang at 8 AM. I immediately recognised the distinguished voice of the British general manager of a posh hotel where I had produced a successful event the previous evening.

He politely and firmly said “Joe, after you left the hotel, it was reported to me that the comedian you provided used foul language during his performance. You promised that his act would be family friendly. This has caused a big issue with our employees. What are you going to do about it?”

I was gob smacked. I had worked hard to select, through a local talent agent, a comedian whose act would be family friendly. Therefore, I told the general manager that I was appalled at this behaviour and would investigate and report back to him the same day.

After speaking with the talent agent, the comedian rang me and in a remorseful voice said “The audience was not laughing. I was having ‘flop sweats’ and used a few foul words to try and make them laugh. I am really sorry.”

Now that I had all the facts, I called the general manager and apologised on behalf of the comedian and myself and then promptly walked over to his hotel with my check that provided a full refund for our services for that evening. By the time I returned to my office the general manager had called to say how much he appreciated my thoughtful response to such a serious issue for him. In the following years we continued to supply his hotel with many events and entertainers, but never, not even once, another comedian.

That is why when I heard the news about Jerry Sadowitz at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival Plesance venue I was conflicted. My first reaction was to admire the courage of the presenters to remove him from their line up of performers. Not only would this removal cost them tens of thousands of pounds in revenue it would risk their reputation as a place where all views were welcomed, even if they were intolerable to some audience members.

However, almost immediately I wondered about the long term damage of having a presenter de – platform or cancel a performer because they received complaints from audience members. This phenomenon has begun to accelerate and grow arms and legs within higher education when speakers from controversial countries such as Israel, China, and now Russia with to speak on campus. Sometimes, before they even open their mouths the local organisers refuse them the right to ascend the platform and share theire views.

If this continues to grow within live entertainment, such as happened at The Pleasance, where will it lead us in terms of the fragile concept that is imbedded in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was originally drafted by former USA first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Article Ten states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.

Have we begun to confront a new and more dangerous global frontier where any individual may be subject to the forces of Adam Smith’s invisible hand slaps them when they dare to share their opinion with others in a public setting? If this new frontier succeeds in preventing individuals whose opinions are not popular with a minority or majority of citizens from expressing their views, I fear we have begun to cascade down a slippery slope that may lead to dangerous consequences for civil society.

Recently, whilst working in New York city I discovered that the ubiquitous large screen television within our accomodation granted us access to over 2000 television channels and tens of thousands of hours of daily diversion. To access the television I used a very confusing and challenging remote control. However, the one button I fully understood how to deploy was the off switch. When I was offended, harmed by the content, or worse, I simply pressed this button to make my escape and prevent further distress.

I firmly believe that this is the best way to deal with entertainers such as Jerry Sadowitz and others whose views we may find offensive or even intolerable. We simply must leave the room by using the remote control or even physically when attending a public venue.

However, we cannot and must not allow others to fight our battles for us by selectively removing individuals from the stage or channel because some do not agree with their performance, language, or ideas. If we do not, as consumers of information, education and entertainment stand up and speak out when we are offended, then it is to our detriment as well as those of our fellow citizens.

Several years after my experience with the crude comedian my wife and I attended a new film in her Mid – western USA home town. In the opening scene of the film a group of comic male actors were seen urinating against a wall. We were sitting in the second row and I found this cheap joke offensive and not contributing in any way to honour of the story. I told my wife that I was leaving and she agreed to join me. Upon entering the lobby I found a young usher and told him that I was offended and wanted my money back. He immediately refunded the price of our tickets and apologised for my discomfort. And by the way, a few other patrons followed my example.

It has now been nearly 40 years since I received that telephone call from the hotel general manager expressing his concern about the comedian we provided. I still shudder when I hear a speaker or entertainer include racist, mysogynist, or foul language in their speech. And, I occasionally rise and walk out or press the off button. I suppose that is my right as a free citizen and I plan to continue exercising it regularly. Perhaps those who choose to shock and disgust me with their words will also get the message that while they are free to share what I believe are dark themes, I am equally free to shift gears and move away to what I consider to be a lighter place.

Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University. His views are his own. To read more about his views visit

2 thoughts on “Free Speech at What Cost?

  • August 16, 2022 at 6:03 pm

    A sensible approach to offending humour Joe. Billy (the blasphemer) Connolly suffered the same prejudice many years ago and mellowed “slightly” with age. Pushing boundaries with humour is an art nae a craft that must endure. Otherwise we will have no relief from the worries of today. I for one do not wish to exist in a world that has echoes of Stepford.


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