Censorship

How John Adams' Ass Nearly Suffocated the First Amendment

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Paul Levinson, who teaches communication and media studies at Fordham, gives a nice talk recently posted at MensNewsDaily about "flouting the First Amendment" when it comes to cussing and fussing about cussing in various forms of media. Lengthy snippets, dark hilarity ensues:

Anyway, somebody in the town mumbled, "Why are they firing the cannons now? John Adams is gone. They're firing the cannons at his ass," and that is a direct quote. "They're firing the cannons at his ass."

Well, a friend of his, a town drunkard by the name of Luther Baldwin, basically responded, "I wish they'd fire the cannons through John Adams's ass." Well, unfortunately for Baldwin, there were a few people standing by who were known as Federalists, that is people who supported John Adams's party and they promptly called over some constables and had Baldwin arrested for being disrespectful and threatening of the President. I guess disrespectful because he uttered the word "ass"; threatening because of what he said about the cannonball. A few days later—to show you how absurd things were back in 1798—a New York newspaper by the name of The New York Argus published an editorial. Now The New York Argus was run by Jeffersonians; they were against what John Adams was doing, so in their editorial they said, "You know this is really absurd. They arrest this drunk in Newark because he said he wanted to fire a cannonball at John Adams's ass—how can that possibly be considered a danger? Why, the ass of John Adams is far too disgusting a target for anyone to look at long enough to fire a cannonball at it!" And guess what? The Feds came after The New York Argus because they were being disrespectful of the President.

That's a funny story, but nonetheless it is extremely serious because seven years after the First Amendment becomes a supreme law of the land, it is sat upon and nearly suffocated by John Adams's ass….

Last year, Fox…had a cartoon called Family Guy, which a few years earlier in the late 1990s had aired an episode with someone's bare ass. In a cartoon. A cartoon figure's bare backside. Well, Fox was so upset in 2004—I guess they didn't want to offend George Bush, their biggest patron, ya know, where would they be then?—that when Family Guy was brought back, they pixilated, in other words blurred out, the baby's backside and the father's backside, too. A cartoon baby's backside! They went to the effort of pixilating it because they were afraid the FCC would take umbrage….

The House of Representatives today, just today (that's what I like about giving this talk, I always have some new material to draw upon) passed a law, a constitutional amendment that would not allow desecration of the American flag. I have to admit when I first heard this, I almost had an ironic mixed feeling because at least they're showing that the Constitution has to be respected. That's not what the FCC is doing, which is just stomping on the First Amendment without even acknowledging that that's a problem. But it shows in what direction America is going, and now we have to hope that the state legislatures don't ratify that amendment because if we do have a constitutional amendment that makes it illegal to burn or desecrate the flag what will be next? Will it be illegal to criticize the flag? Will it be illegal to criticize the President?

Whole thing here.

Levinson mentions in passing both the good ideas and weak resolve of former FCC chairman Michael Powell, who pushed for treating broadcast radio and TV the same as newspapers, books, and cable (and whose courage faltered in the wake of the Janet Jackson's nipple exposure during a Super Bowl that was far less interesting). Reason interviewed Powell a few years back and it is indeed appalling to see the FCC going in precisely the direction of trying to regulate cable and satellite and levying fines whereever it can for fleeting profanity. The mediaverse beyond the FCC's reach is vast and growing, and here's hoping it stays that way.

NEXT: Dissent from Plessy v. Ferguson

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  1. “Where yah puttin that thar cannonball?”
    “Bend over and I’ll show you.”

  2. I think this Adams’ ass incident, combined with the Alien and Sedition Acts, shows the limitations of originalism as a constitutional theory. The sorts of laws restricting speech back than would be considered beyond the pale these days by most people on the left and the right (unless the laws were specifically targeted at their political opponents).

  3. Yo, fuck John Adams’s ass.

  4. I tried my best to read that article, but it was incredibly hard to follow. I made it to the part about Carlin and gave up.

  5. That’s a funny story, but nonetheless it is extremely serious

    Serious? Yes. Funny? If by “funny” you mean long-winded and meandering, then yeah, it’s a riot. John Adams…ass…18th century comedy gold!

  6. The gov’t slapped Eugene Debs in jail during WWI for advocating people resist the draft. You don’t have to go all the way back to John Adams’ cornhole to find a fairly exhaustive and egregious list of violations of the plain language of the 1st Amendment.

  7. “During a Superbowl that was far less interesting…”

    Could you really be referring to this game? Boy, your standards are high…

  8. Fuck the FCC.

  9. Yo, fuck censorship.

  10. “Congress shall make no law…” seems like it leaves everything stated after it to the states. I think the 14th amendment, ratified in 1868, made the 1st amendment applicable to all governments.

  11. Mo-

    Adams the revolutionary was no match for Adams on the throne. However, the philosophy undergirding 1776 is what matters; not the subsequent corruptibility of its proponents.

  12. “Adams the revolutionary was no match for Adams on the throne. However, the philosophy undergirding 1776 is what matters; not the subsequent corruptibility of its proponents.”

    In fact, one could make the argument that the best evidence of the Founders’ wisdom in providing for limited government was how the Founders themselves behaved once they entered government.

    As for Mr. Levinson, interesting how he attacks the past actions of Federalists and Republicans, but says not a word about the federal hate crimes legislation currently pending before a Democrat Congress and endorsed by a Democrat president. As Nat Hentoff points out, this bill is a direct violation of free speech and double jeopardy. It would seem more useful to speak out against unconstitutional acts that are about to happen, instead of damning violations that occurred over two centuries ago.

  13. It would seem more useful to speak out against unconstitutional acts that are about to happen, instead of damning violations that occurred over two centuries ago.

    Unless, of course, your purpose is to provide intellectual cover for the pending unconstitutional acts.

  14. Wicks Cherrycake-

    One could argue that Adams had himself in mind in writing the Massachusetts constitution. He knew his own limitations and natural thirst for power. He did have a terrific ego, ambition and temper, after all. He knew full well that it was not a good idea to add power to that mix.

  15. Wicks Cherrycoke – you obviously didn’t bother to read the piece, just went ahead with your own agenda here. Follow the link at “Whole thing here” above – Dr. Levinson’s talk was given in June 2005, when we were still suffering under a Republican President and Republican Congress.

    And by the way – it’s the DEMOCRATIC party not the “Democrat” party. Grammar 101.

  16. He did pay some lip-service to the idea that Clinton was responsible for a lot of anti-free speech stuff too and does say that it’s not a “Republican vs. Democrat” issue….

    Though on balance, yes, he mostly singles out Republicans……. but why would we be surprised by that?

  17. I dunno, it read to me like a pretty strong attack on Clinton, not lip service, and you conveniently left off the rest of his quoted words (it was a transcript of a speech) which was “So this is not a Republican versus Democrat issue. They’re both equal opportunity abusers of the First Amendment.” “They”. People. Nouns.

  18. In fairness to Adams, the jokes about his ass are at about a “jerk store” level of wit.

  19. Psh… “conveniently”, don’t be a cock wagonmaker, i was making the same point you just did.

    The only difference is that I noted that the majority of his speech he was only mentioning republicans. It was hardly balanced and omits a lot of the Dems transgressions on speech – except the clinton part.

  20. . A few days later – to show you how absurd things were back in 1798 – a New York newspaper by the name of The New York Argus published an editorial.

    And yet, when this paper disappeared, the republic remained sound.

  21. Will it be illegal to criticize the President?

    It already is if you mention his name in a non-issue ad within 60 days of a general election.

    But my liberal friends tell me that law preserves democracy.

  22. Drunkard

    We must end the dialog of hate. This man was obviously a victim of Big Alcohol and we need to take their profits, to moderate the discussion.

  23. “…whose courage faltered in the wake of the Janet Jackson’s nipple exposure during a Super Bowl that was far less interesting…”

    What Gillespie does and does not find interesting about that SuperBowl broadcast confuses and angers me.

    Seriously, finding the halftime show of any football game more interesting than the game itself is least 5 demerits an your man card.

  24. Sean W. Malone wrote: “The only difference is that I noted that the majority of his speech he was only mentioning republicans. It was hardly balanced and omits a lot of the Dems transgressions on speech – except the clinton part.”

    My speech lambastes the FCC (signed into law by FDR – a Democrat), praises the Eisenhower (Republican) appointed Supreme Court vs. the Supreme Court in the late 1970s, etc…

    Are you illiterate, ignorant of history, or just lazy?

  25. The EXTREMELY disrespectful attitude of this writer just shows how far and down-hill our country has gone! Parents, grow-up, and teach your children to be more respectful than this person, please! This is the kind of person that distorts history and has destroyed our once united country.

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