Say it loud! The potential value of vulgarity!

Feb 11, 2016

By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendment

Let's hear it for vulgarity!

Well, at least let's hear it for occasionally "hearing it," and other offensive terms and ideas. Let's accept that there are times, such as presidential elections, where we have an abiding need to really "hear" the speaker, unfiltered and raw, and not just through a prettified, sanitized, preplanned utterance.

We need to be surprised, shocked, awed or offended at times to get the full-on impact of what people are saying in this widely derided but no less-observed era of rehearsed talking points and "sound bites." Language "with bite" or just plain speaking may be shocking but also can be insightful — the very point of the First Amendment's protection for free expression.

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the legal protection of offensive speech in 1971, in Cohen v. California — an opinion by Justice John Marshall Harlan II that included the worthy observation that while "the particular four-letter word being litigated here is perhaps more distasteful than others of its genre, it is often true that one man's vulgarity is another man's lyric."

Both supporters and critics can take new measure of Republican front-runner Donald Trump for recently pretending to "reprimand" a woman at one of his New Hampshire rallies for shouting out a vulgar assessment of fellow GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz. As Trump was criticizing Cruz's reluctance to endorse "waterboarding" suspected terrorists, a woman shouted, "He's a pussy!" Trump — in a mocking tone — replied, "You're not allowed to say, and I never expect to hear that from you again." He then repeated the shout, to cheers and applause.

Lest we forget, this 2016 campaign also has had references to "blood coming out of her wherever" (Trump, about Fox News' Megyn Kelly, after an August 2015 debate); outright insults, as in "Trump is a jerk" (former Gov. Jeb Bush, in a January TV ad); and Bush slamming Trump for allegedly making fun ofNew York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who has an illness affecting his arms, by telling a crowd, "You gotta see this guy," and shaking his own his arms.

Of course, it doesn't take rampant crudity to widely offend — Democrats found out at almost the same time as Trump's echo act. In a report the night before the New Hampshire primary, a question was posed on "PBS NewsHour," asking if noted feminist icon Gloria Steinem and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did "step in it" — itself an interesting term — by chiding young women for their nonsupport of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

The pair had churlishly declared that youthful female voters seemed more focused on meeting young men surrounding Clinton opponent Sen. Bernie Sanders than in fomenting political revolution — a "fever" over "fervor" assessment that may well have provoked as much outrage as did Trump.

So, we've never seen this stuff before in a presidential race? Actually, while "we" haven't, the nation has — and it started with the very men who delineated the First Amendment's commitment to freedom of expression.

In the campaign of 1800, Thomas Jefferson opposed John Adams. According to a 2008 report by CNN, "Jefferson's camp accused President Adams of being a hypocrite and a coward, and as having a 'hideous hermaphroditical character ... (with) neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.'" Adams' supporters responded by saying Jefferson was "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow," a weakling, atheist, libertine and coward — and using racially tinged insults for good measure.

In 1848, presidential hopeful Lewis Cass was called a "pot-bellied, mutton-headed cucumber." Newspapers more than a century ago included merciless cartoons showing candidates as bulging money bags, swarming crocodiles, monstrous figures and slobbering beasts.

Cartoonist Thomas Nast had made a career during the 1872 presidential race of caricatures showing Democratic candidate Horace Greeley holding hands with corpses, cavorting with criminals, and worse. Some accounts link the unceasing illustrated attacks to Greeley's death, even before his loss to Ulysses S. Grant was certified by the Electoral College.

Fast forward past Harry S. Truman's often-earthy language on-and-off the campaign trail — criticized at the time, but later praised as "plain speaking," and on to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential race being overheard calling New York Times reporter Adam Clymer a "major-league asshole." Presidents Nixon, Johnson, Carter and Obama have all had explicative-laden moments. And it would be difficult to quantify the times on social media that Obama — the nation's first black president — was described in the most racist terms possible.

All of these incidents — now and then — are offensive to many but can be illustrative to us all. We protect political speech above all other categories of free expression under the First Amendment specifically to protect a "vigorous and robust" unfettered exchange of views.

The 2016 election, at least at the outset of primary voting, seems likely to be remembered with self-proclaimed outsiders "speaking truth to power" to Washington insiders. That 1971 "Cohen" opinion also notes an earlier comment by Justice Felix Frankfurter that "one of the prerogatives of American citizenship is the right to criticize public men and measures — and that means not only informed and responsible criticism, but the freedom to speak foolishly and without moderation."

We don't have to like it when candidates and surrogates veer into profanity and vulgarity and speak "without moderation." But such free expression can be useful in taking measure of not just the spoken words but of the speakers behind them.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @genefac.