Legal Articles

The Slap Heard 'Round the World

By Chandler Surrency

If you didn’t watch it happen live, then you definitely heard about it the next day.  At the Oscars on March 27, 2022, Chris Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head.  In response, Will Smith walked on stage and slapped Rock, telling him not to speak about his wife.  Everyone watching was equally confused whether this was an elaborate act or a true feud between the two actors.  Since then, we have discovered it was the latter.  Pinkett Smith has been very open about her struggles with alopecia, and Rock’s decision to ridicule her for a medical condition angered Smith to the point of physical violence.

After the incident, many people asked whether Smith would be charged with assault.  The Los Angeles Police Department stated that Rock had decided not to press charges.  Looking beyond the criminal aspects of this encounter, however, raises questions about the limits of free speech.  Can a comedian say anything about anyone and expect not to face any repercussions?  Is there a line that can’t be crossed?

The First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech.  Past United States Supreme Court cases tell us the extent of that freedom includes the right not to speak, to wear black armbands to school to protest a war, to use certain offensive words and phrases to convey political messages, to contribute money in certain circumstances to political campaigns, to advertise commercial products and professional services with some restrictions, and to engage in symbolic speech such as flag burning.  Freedom of speech does not, however, include the right to incite imminent lawless action, to make or distribute obscene materials, to burn draft cards as an anti-war protest, to permit students to print articles in a school newspaper over the objections of the school administration, of students to make an obscene speech at a school-sponsored event, or of students to advocate illegal drug use at a school-sponsored event. 

The right to free speech means comedians like Rock can legally get away with making jokes about most things.  Whether they should make those jokes is a different conversation for a different day.  Because the line between protected and unprotected speech is not always easy to determine, you should contact an attorney if you have questions about the First Amendment.