Comedy clubs as free speech zones — and the antidote to cancel culture

by Ronald Collins and Ronnie Marmo

On Nov. 24, 1964, the Illinois Supreme Court did what no other state high court had ever done — it vindicated Lenny Bruce’s free speech right to perform provocative routines in comedy clubs. But the freewheeling comedian was not so lucky in New York; a state court thereafter convicted him of obscenity for his comedic bits. It was just one of such prosecutions, the others being in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The New York conviction stood since Bruce died before he could appeal. 

Twenty years ago, however, New York Gov. George Pataki posthumously pardoned the outspoken comedian. “Freedom of speech is one of the greatest American liberties, and I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve.”  

As First Amendment lawyer Robert Corn-Revere then put it in his petition seeking the New York pardon: “Today, comedy clubs are considered free speech zones, and the monologues that prompted New York to prosecute and convict Lenny Bruce would never be considered obscene.”  

While that is true insofar as the law of free speech is concerned, today the culture of free speech is increasingly succumbing to censorship. This is why comedy clubs must stand up and boldly reclaim their role as free speech zones and antidotes to “cancel culture.” Hence, the Lenny Bruce story takes on renewed meaning in a nation gone mad with silencing anything that offends anyone in any way. 

To draw again from Corn-Revere: “Lenny Bruce was in the vanguard of the transformation of the stand-up comic from jokester to social critic, and his routines covered a wide range of topics including racism, organized religion, homosexuality, and social conventions about the use of language.” In the early 1960s, that got him arrested for acts he performed in several comedy clubs. 

Bruce was the last of comedians to be criminally prosecuted for word crimes in a comedy club. It was as if the specter of his persecution forever changed the course of American law even without a Supreme Court ruling. After he died on the desperate run, his spirit resurrected: Uninhibited comedy flourished with the likes of George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers, and Margaret Cho, among others. In time, both the law and culture of free speech coalesced in ways that gave meaningful breathing room to a robust measure of speech freedom. 

Today, however, though the law of free speech is vibrant, the culture is increasingly threatened by the chilling effects of censorship on the left and right. For one thing, some of Bruce’s comedy certainly could not be performed on college campuses since it would be deemed offensive. Then there is the recent fiasco at Stanford Law School in which boisterous hecklers vetoed a talk to be given by a conservative federal judge invited to speak there. Additionally, conservatives in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ state have heartily endorsed censorship of all kinds. 

Countless other troubling examples reveal much the same. In the words of the late historian, Nat Hentoff, it all comes down to “free speech for me, but not for thee.”  

Toleration is an anathema to those easily offended by anything that runs counter to their categorical beliefs. So too, being open-minded is not an option for those whose absolute truth is espoused by their preferred cable station. In such a world, mouths are silenced, and minds are closed. It all makes for a society rife with hypocrisy — a sacred cow Bruce delighted in slaughtering. 

After comedian Dave Chappelle’s show in Minneapolis was canceled for being offensive, Jamie Masada, owner of comedy club chain the Laugh Factory, told Fox News Digital that the “comic stage is their sanctuary. We have to protect the First Amendment. We can’t dilute it. We have to be able to laugh at ourselves.” Not only should that sanctuary be preserved, but it must also be enriched to exemplify the vital values of free speech zones. 

Carlin said Bruce “prefigured the free-speech movement and helped push the culture forward into the light of open and honest expression.”  

More than ever, that light needs to shine brightly, first in and then out of America’s comedy clubs — those last safe havens of free speech in a democracy. So let the free speech campaign begin in comedy clubs in Chicago and across the land, those free speech zones where censorship is bum-rushed out the door. 

Ronald Collins is a retired law professor and co-author, with David Skover, of the 2002 book “The Trials of Lenny Bruce.” Actor and playwright Ronnie Marmo portrays Lenny Bruce in his hit one-man show “I’m Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce,” directed by Joe Mantegna.