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Egypt has reportedly arrested a comedian for mocking President Mohamed Morsi, prompting criticism by the U.S. State Department.
The State Department said the arrest of television personality Bassem Youssef was “evidence of a disturbing trend of growing restrictions on freedom of expression,” according to Voice of America News.
The incident stands in contrast to the robust nature of freedom of expression through humor and satire in the United States.
Political satire and jokes about government leaders have been part of American public life throughout the nation’s history.
From satirical attacks in the earliest newspapers through Will Rogers, talk show monologues and Saturday Night Live, comedy has largely been beyond the reach of the government. Still, profanity and sexual content have fueled some efforts to limit free speech in comedy in the U.S.
One example was the prosecution of Lenny Bruce in 1964 on obscenity charges. Bruce’s case, documented so well by former First Amendment Center scholar Ron Collins and David Skover in their The Trials of Lenny Bruce, is both a cautionary and inspiring tale.
Convicted on obscenity charges, Bruce received a posthumous pardon by New York Gov. George Pataki in 2003.
In 1973, a New York City radio station was found by the FCC to be guilty of broadcasting “indecent” content when it aired George Carlin’s Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.
This led to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation, in which the court held the FCC had the authority to regulate indecent content on the radio.
Ken Paulson is president and chief executive officer of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and in Washington, D.C. Previously, Paulson served as the editor and senior vice president/news of USA Today.