Kathy Griffin Matters

We Americans pride ourselves on our supposed respect for free speech. In reality, however, few citizens seem to rally to the cause of freedom of expression when it’s under attack.

The latest major free-speech controversy surrounds the comedian Kathy Griffin, best known for co-hosting CNN’s coverage of New Year’s Eve celebrations at Times Square with Anderson Cooper:

Image result for kathy griffin cnn anderson cooper

Earlier this week, it came to light that a Griffin photo shoot with the photographer Tyler Shields included an image of Griffin holding up a (fake, obviously) head of President Donald Trump. The image evokes pictures of ISIS members displaying the decapitated heads of their victims:

Image result for griffin head trump

Reflecting America’s history of four presidential assassinations, there is a long-standing cultural and social taboo here against threats real or implied against a president’s life. Federal law prohibits such threats.

Reaction to Griffin’s Trump head photo was predictably swift and fierce. Politicians of both parties called for CNN to fire Griffin from her NYE gig. Trump himself tweeted: “My children, especially my 11-year-old son Barron, are having a hard time with this. Sick!” (It may be time, Mr. President, to monitor Barron’s access to electronic devices.) After Anderson Cooper threw his “friend” under the bus on Twitter (“completely inappropriate“), CNN fired her.

Foolishly, she felt compelled to apologize too.

Griffin hasn’t gotten much support from the creative community. One exception was the comic actor Jim Carrey. “It’s the job of the comedian to cross the line at all times,” Carrey said. “That line is not real and if you step out into that spotlight and you’re doing the crazy things that (Trump) is doing, we’re the last line of defense. The comedians are the last voice of truth in this whole thing.”

Carrey is right. Satire is a high-wire act. If it’s not dangerous, it’s not funny — it’s Jay Leno at worst, Stephen Colbert at best. Pillorying Griffin for being “inappropriate” is ridiculous. She got fired for trying to do her job. So the image was disturbing and offensive. So what? No one would have paid attention to it if had been safe and bland, like most political satire.

Now, a primer on free speech.

For a creator, there is no “line.” When I work as an editor, I tell cartoonists that it’s their job to create and mine to censor. Pitch anything, go crazy, be wild. If I approve a piece, and all hell breaks loose, the person who should be fired for poor editorial judgement is the editor, not the artist. Artists shouldn’t self-censor.

Private companies can censor. The First Amendment is narrow. It only protects us from censorship by the government. But employers like CNN can and do censor. They should be called out when they do, and censorship should always be widely condemned and despised.

CNN blacklisted Griffin. Blacklisting is the practice of firing or refusing to hire a creator for work they did for someone else. Griffin didn’t post her Trump head pic on CNN.com. She didn’t display it on a CNN broadcast. So the Trump head was not CNN’s business. What was CNN’s business was what she did on the air with Anderson Cooper at Times Square, nothing more.

Unfortunately, blacklisting is common. Sports teams have disgusting “morals clauses” that allow owners to discipline athletes for expressing themselves off the playing field; if free speech means a thing, these should be prohibited. Employers have fired employees for the political bumper sticker on their car. Gross! I was fired from a gig drawing cartoons about sex and relationships for Men’s Health by a publisher who didn’t like a cartoon I drew for newspapers about politics — and that I never submitted to MH. Unless you’re born rich, you have to work. No employer should make you think twice about expressing yourself — yes, even if you’re expression is racist or otherwise offensive. Free speech is free speech.

The quality of the censored work or artist is irrelevant. I don’t give a shit about Kathy Griffin and never thought she was that funny, though she offered undeniable random charm in her NYE appearances. (Weird randomness is an essential ingredient of successful humor.) I don’t really understand the humor in the Trump head photo. From what I gather from social media, most Americans agree with me.

But what we think of a comedian’s work is completely unrelated to whether she deserves our support.

Remember when my colleague Garry Trudeau criticized the quality and content of the cartoons drawn by artists murdered by gunmen at the office of the Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo? The effect of Trudeau’s remarks was to support ISIS against cartoonists, and to partially justify the slaughter. Whenever a value as fundamental as free expression is under attack, people of good conscience must rally to defend it, no matter the content. Though disgusted by Islamophobia, I was appalled by the attempt of two ISIS gunmen to murder right-wing anti-Muslim cartoonists in Texas in 2015. I condemned liberal attempts to get right-wing radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessinger fired, even though Rush has personally slimed me. When I had my radio show in Los Angeles, I took heat from pro-censorship liberals for bringing white supremacist David Duke on the air for a vigorous debate.

Reading this, some readers will say: you can say anything you want, but you don’t have the right to demand that someone hire you (or not fire you) if you do. This is sophistry.

In a capitalist society, you work or you starve to death. So, under our present system — you can be fired for saying stuff your boss doesn’t like, even stuff you say at home, not at work — your employer effectively has the right to kill you if your expression causes him (or his customers) offense. Most people aren’t rich enough not to have to worry about this. So they censor themselves.

By definition, therefore, we do not live in a free society. We are not free to say what we want, to be who we want to be.

Until we come to our senses and elevate freedom of expression to a true inalienable right that cannot be infringed upon by anyone or any entity, the only way to fight for free speech is to condemn censorship when we see it — especially when it’s incredibly clear and obvious.

Griffin’s situation is such a case.

The expression in question was clearly political speech. (Again, whether you thought it was tasteless or not is irrelevant.)

Griffin was fired by one employer, CNN — her highest profile gig — for something she did far away from CNN. This is blacklisting at its most McCarthyist, and must not be tolerated.

Citing Griffin’s Senator and former comic Al Franken said her “real, fulsome apology” means that, eventually, she may be able to recover from the Trump flap. A society in which a long-time professional comedian could be destroyed by one flop of a joke is not one that ought to be lecturing other countries about how it values freedom of speech.

Finally, Trump has this sort of satire coming. I’m not going to recite the President’s litany of disgusting statements and remarks about women, overweight people, Mexicans, and so on. The man is a colossal asshole. Instead let’s address the quaint notion that images of presidents and gruesome death shouldn’t mix.

Like his predecessors, Trump routinely orders airstrikes and drone strikes against countless innocent people. He has already murdered hundreds, possibly thousands, of people in the Middle East and South Asia. Shouldn’t we fire this guy, who actually causes real people to lose their real, actual bloodied heads, instead of Kathy Griffin?



  • There is a fine line, somewhere, although I’m not altogether certain where it is.

    If a company hires someone to represent them or provide a face for that company, then they have the right to determine whether that person represents them in a manner they feel is consistent with the image they wish to convey. The National Wildlife Federation ain’t gonna hire Ted Nugent – but that does not interfere with Nugent’s right to free [stupid] speech. Rall has a good point that I need to work in order to eat, but I still need to find a job which an employer will pay me for. I’d prefer to play video games, but can’t find anyone to pay me for it – ergo, I need to do what my employer wants me to do.

    But what if that company is a newspaper or cable news service? Do they have the right to fire – oh, say Ted Rall for instance – because they or their supporters disagree with what he says? That *is* getting real close to censorship, which is itself a violation of the reason for freedom of the press in the first place.

    What if your cable company decided to cut down the speed used to download Ted’s site? That doesn’t actually restrict his right to free speech, but it is a form of censorship – his speech is harder to … uh … “hear” compared to a site (Fox?) which they allow to stream quicker.

    One problem, of course, is that media is a *business* – for profit rather than for public good. That’s a problem, but I don’t have a solution. Government subsidies? That puts the government in charge of deciding who gets funded. Get consumers to pay for it rather than advertisers? Not only do consumers already pick & choose what they want to read, but TPTB could then subsidize those voices they prefer so Glenn Beck would be a cheaper subscription than Ted Rall.

    So, once again, I wind up firmly straddling the fence. I don’t have a solution, but I do admire the problem.

    • Clarification: in the specific case of the LAT and LAPD, Ted’s firing damn well does amount to Government Censorship.

      • > There is a fine line and you are straddling the fence?

        I mix a mean metaphor, don’t I? 😀

    • There is a fine line and you are straddling the fence? I have existed for years, but you’ve got a drooling defense. I have existed for years, but..
      .I am gross and perverted
      I’m obsessed ‘n deranged
      I have existed for years
      But very little has changed
      I’m the tool of the Government
      And industry too
      For I am destined to rule
      And regulate you

      I may be vile and pernicious
      But you can’t look away
      I make you think I’m delicious
      With the stuff that I say
      I’m the best you can get
      Have you guessed me yet?
      I’m the slime oozin’ out
      From your TV set

      You will obey me while I lead you
      And eat the garbage that I feed you
      Until the day that we don’t need you
      Don’t go for help . . . no one will heed you
      Your mind is totally controlled
      It has been stuffed into my mold
      And you will do as you are told
      Until the rights to you are sold

      That’s right, folks . . .
      Don’t touch that dial

      Well, I am the slime from your video
      Oozin’ along on your livin’ room floor

  • DaniilAdamov
    June 2, 2017 12:43 PM

    Hear hear on the free speech. There are three forms of censorship: political (outright legal ban), social (ostracism) and economic (firing/blacklisting). Most societies use all three in some combination or other. America is one of the few that, to my knowledge, doesn’t (currently) use the former, but its social and economic censorship habits appear to have filled in the vacuum. (By contrast, I live in Russia, where political and to a lesser degree economic censorship is fairly strong, though far from Soviet-level; but social censorship is much, much weaker, and so fascists and communists can get away with expressing their views so long as they are smart enough to avoid explicitly taunting the law. Society somehow fails to collapse in the face of this horrifying pluralism.)

    The one thing that bothers me is that it is indeed unclear how one can combat social and economic censorship. Much of that is, after all, merely a matter of how others can exercise freedom of speech to suppress other people’s rights to the same. Would you make boycotting something or telling people to avoid inviting someone illegal? How?

  • “Satire is a high-wire act. If it’s not dangerous, it’s not funny — it’s Jay Leno at worst, Stephen Colbert at best.”
    I couldn’t stand to watch Jay Leno. To me, he just wasn’t funny — even though he laughed at his own jokes. No, probably because of the fact that he laughed at his own jokes.

    I watched Colbert faithfully at “The Colbert Report.” He became lame at “The Late Show.” I tried, and I tried. I recently gave up. There’s nothing there, because his writers can’t come up with the humor. “Midnight Confessions” is offensive. “The Hat Has Spoken” is childish. I sent him a tweet expressing my disappointment at how low he has sunk.

  • Don’t look to these parties to stand up with you for your rights.

    “Sen. Dick Durbin (D.-Ill.), writing in the Chicago Sun-Times (“It’s Time to Say Who’s a Real Reporter,” 6/26/13), says it’s time to stop letting just anyone call themselves a journalist.

    “Everyone, regardless of the mode of expression, has a constitutionally protected right to free speech. But when it comes to freedom of the press, I believe we must define a journalist and the constitutional and statutory protections those journalists should receive.

    “By this he means, basically, that the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press probably don’t apply to you…”


  • Responsible adults have pretty much disappeared or been drowned out in our “attention economy”. When you have so much ‘information’ (anyone can post anything they feel like saying anytime and it becomes available almost instantly everywhere), then you yourself have the responsibility to decide for yourself – not others – what is really important and what is drivel, gibberish or ‘bad’. Wanting to censor others becomes a “whack-a mole” situation, and is a complete waste of time and resources. “Stupid is as stupid does” is a timeless truth, and if you are a responsible adult, then you owe it to yourself and the society around you to think logically and treat others as you would want to be treated yourself. Getting back to the issue here, I’d say Kathy Griffith AND Ted have treated extremely unfairly and harmed because of the desire to hurt others who do not agree with us, or say things we don’t like – whether by text or graphics. And, unfortunately, if nothing else, T.Rump has proven that you CAN fool most of the people some of the time.

  • Thanks, Ted, for this defence of free speech and humour. Important for people in the United States (and elsewhere) to keep in mind is, as you point out, that being fired by an (ostensibly) non governmental organisation like CNN allows repression without the need for Congress to make a law….


  • What is behind this is a confusion about the person and the persona. This is a problem that seems to be particularly pronounced in the U.S. for some reason (even laid-back Californians elected an actor twice).

    Had Griffin played Lady Macbeth on stage – would CNN conclude that she was not the kind of person they want to have representing them in some sense?

    What CNN could say is that going along with the photograph showed poor professional judgment (of Griffin the person) which caused them to rethink their association, in particular for doing live commentary. Then again, they presumably can give her editorial cues through her ear-piece and one would think that her contract would be quite specific.

    What’s really behind this, looks like, is that CNN does not believe people are smart enough to differentiate between Griffin the persona in that photograph – as a small part of the larger persona of Griffin the comedian – and Griffin the persona before the CNN camera.

    It also shows how Black Mirror the TV series is correct in characterizing the power of the 5-minute-hate social media mob.

    The real parallel to Ted’s LAT/LAPD ordeal is the almost instinctive response of large quarters of the establishment to patrol the boundaries and flush out whatever is consider to fall out of the allowed range of debate. This range is quite flexible, and can move to include racists and Trump himself, even Corbyn, interestingly, but they will fight you tooth and nail when moving the boundary and then forget all about it once you’re acceptable again.

    • You’re right andreas5, but – and this is a really bigly butt, I do believe that most Amuricans are unable differentiate between Griffin and her persona. So that said, the problem becomes our problem to differentiate between the ignorant responses, stupid responses and the educated or other, etc. Can’t be done – it turns into wack-a-mole or ‘let me edumatkate them readers who be seeing my word stuff about history and everything I be knowing” ’cause I like to pontificate crud. You are surrounded by ignorance, so besides ranting, what do you see as a solution?

      • > most Amuricans are unable differentiate between Griffin and her persona.

        Dang it, Rikster, you plagiarized me before I even made the post. 😀 (“I agree”) Half of Americans can’t differentiate between Al Gore and global warming; an actor and an act is far above their pointy little heads.

        > You are surrounded by ignorance, so besides ranting, what do you see as a solution?


        A few years back, the Texas Lege tried to ban schools from teaching critical thinking, specifically because it might make young people question their parents’ beliefs. Obviously, we need a lot of education for the nominal adults as well.

        So, there’s the solution – I’ll leave the picky little implementation details to someone else…

    • “What is behind this confusion?” You are. You and almost everyone else that thinks they can hide behind a computer screen and just type away – believing that what you are typing is of some value. It isn’t. You can look at a thousand other forums and blogs and find the same ignorance and self-righteousness
      Until you can walk in another person’s shoes – because you are simply an amateur pedagogue – you need to read your own comments first, and learn. Yeah, sorry buddy, but you have to learn first, and that doesn’t mean reciting history or telling others that you have masturbater’s degree or whatever. Get a clue. Ted has spent way, way, way more time than you cramped over a cartoon as an artist, trying to make something that might have some value. Sometimes he strikes gold, and sometimes he doesn’t. You won’t hear from the Rikster any more, not because I don’t want to, but because I won’t lower myself anymore to your level. It’s simply a waste of time on you pathetic losers who talk a good bit, but when it comes to actually doing anything in the real world, won’t do shit. I’m off to the hospital to help others – fuck you losers. LMOA – Rick

      • Did you drop some bad acid today, Rickie? You’re angrier and even less lucid than usual.

        “You and almost everyone else that thinks they can hide behind a computer screen and just type away”

        Quoth the loser hiding behind a computer screen and typing.

        Helping people at a hospital is nice, but humans are in no danger other than from themselves. I dedicate my time to helping the plants and animals which *aren’t* in control of their environment. Woodland recovery; removing invasive species while reintroducing native ones; and public education (standing up in front of real, live, people). I live out in the woods and have turned 80% of my property over to native flora and fauna; I dug a frog pond because amphibians are endangered the world over; if I have extra eggs in the spring I donate them to local schools and volunteer my time to talk to the kids about pond life. Sometimes I even loan them one of my aquariums and maintain it so the kids can watch the polliwogs turn into frogs.

        So you’re helping the world’s most invasive species live a little longer to do a little more damage to the world that gave them birth. That’s nice.

    • Hmm, that is a fair – if cynical – point (people actually being bad at distinguishing between actors and protagonists).

      Then again, I think we give people not enough credit. It is also about figuring out and even enacting and shaping a cultural script. When it is ok – even expected – to throw tomatoes at villains in a performance that this is “appropriate”. In a way we seem like an absurdly tame and passive audience in that we’d scoff at things like this.

      I think the parallel to education is interesing, but even here it is about agency and shaping more than about passively registering: for example, treating students like simpletons is a sure-fire thing to get them to behave like simpletons (although they will make jokes behind your back).

      So conceding to the mob, CNN really reinforces this mentality and confirms its legitimacy, making someone like Ted sound incorrect and quaint for calling this mentality into question since it clearly is the way things work. Small victories pave the way to big victories, so let’s prepare for smaller perceived mis-steps to bring down larger players. Ted is correct, it is chilling to think about.

      Sometimes students can get their teacher fired, too, if the students’ parents have enough clout.

      @ rikster
      Not sure I understand why you are leaving, if that is what you’re doing. Perhaps just take a break and don’t burn your bridges, you’ll be welcome back whenever you feel like (if other places are just like Ted’s than I haven’t visited enough such places…).

      Anyway, I think your point about us just hacking away on our keyboards and hence being part of the problem, while entirely correct, is a little cheap since otherwise we’d not be posting here? 😉

  • Mr Rall and the author of the Dilbert blog agree: the government should have its hands tied by an obsolete 18th century document that says everyone is entitled to Free Speech.

    Of course, most Americans know that the US government cannot let that obsolete 18th century document tie their hands or they could not keep the job creators safe, and that’s all that matters.

    The US hanged a cartoonist after WWII for drawing anti-US cartoons, as well they should have done. The US is the Greatest Force for Good in the World, and has not just the right but the duty to destroy anyone who says otherwise.

  • No means no, Crazy H. I just removed Ted’s website from my bookmarks. I can find the same crap all over the Internet. Ted has become a fairly boring source of junk. He’s been pounded so hard that he has allowed himself to be no longer distinguishable from hundreds of others. I wish him well in trying to continue his mediocre posts, but I have no desire to deal with the small group of trolls and pedagogues that follow him. Catch you later, alligator 🙂 Rick

    • Don’t let the doorknob hit your head on the way out.

    • Oh, no!
      Tell me it ain’t so!
      The only contributor who in comparison makes me look sane (not to say “genius”) is checking out?
      You’r my only hope, Obi Wan Kenobi (mhenriday) — What shall I do? What shall I do?

      • «You’r my only hope, Obi Wan Kenobi (mhenriday) — What shall I do? What shall I do?» I fear, mein verehrter Lehrer, that you’re here confusing me with rikster, who, it would seem, is bowing out of the discussion. For my part, my appreciation of Ted’s work is unabated and I intend to continue reading and commenting on this forum, even if perhaps not in quite the same manner as previously….


      • @ mhenriday
        “I fear, mein verehrter Lehrer, that you’re here confusing me with rikster, who, it would seem, is bowing out of the discussion.”
        Not at all, Friend. That was an attempt on my part to pour a little salt into the wound that caused his sudden departure, by appealing to you to assist me get past the hurt.
        Unfortunately, I did not make my intent very clear. That’s what happens when I sip on Scotch-n-water all day.

      • «Unfortunately, I did not make my intent very clear. That’s what happens when I sip on Scotch-n-water all day.» Given what the world looks like on most days, mein verehrter Lehrer, a sip or two seems an understandable way to cope with the situation, at least on a temporary basis…. 😉

        Ted’s way of coping with it – i e, drawing cartoons and writing essays – is something I for one greatly appreciate, even if it is hardly unique to him. Still, I find uniqueness as a quality is often overrated ; rather I should prefer that Ted’s opinions (or even my own !) were shared more widely. In any event, I am grateful to him for publishing them in such a manner that even I am granted access….


    • It seems that rik is displeased.

      Pity is, I don’t remember whose job it was to please him.

      If anybody remembers who was assigned to please rik, please pass on the word that his efforts have been deficient and failed to adequately meet his standards.

      I know we will all try to do our best heretofore for our precious after such a scolding.

      Thank you in advance for your help in the remediation of this matter of concern to all of us.

      And don’t eat the brown acid.

  • SenatorBleary
    June 6, 2017 2:52 PM

    Any thoughts on the recent Bill Maher controversy, Ted? I watched the episode and him dropping the N-bomb didn’t even make the top 5 of dumb things he said.

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