Last week, old radio clips surfaced of the Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson saying some incendiary things. From 2006 to 2011, Carlson had called in regularly to a show in Florida, where he described Arianna Huffington as a “pig,” Oprah Winfrey as an “anti-man” crusader who “hate[s] the penis,” and women in general as “extremely primitive.” Iraqis are “monkeys” who should “shut the fuck up and obey.” Carlson also had positive messages. He spoke lustily of Miss Teen South Carolina, saying, “She definitely looks eighteen.” And he praised white men for “creating civilization and stuff.”
After the first clips were aired by Media Matters, many advertisers abandoned Carlson’s show (including Just for Men, the beard-dye brand; MyPillow remains). Carlson refused to apologize. He argued instead that critics on the left have stifled the free flow of ideas by policing what people “are allowed to say and believe.” The latest battle in the free-speech wars had begun.
The nation has come a long way since Schenck v. United States, which confirmed that the Constitution doesn’t allow a man to falsely yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. Social laws have proved trickier. Can a man yell that pedophilia involving a grown woman and a young boy isn’t so bad, on a national radio show? To answer that question, the country may soon turn to the case of Love Sponge v. Snowflakes.
The sponge in question is Bubba the Love Sponge Clem, the host of the radio show that Carlson liked to call. Clem, who legally changed his first name to Bubba the Love Sponge in 1999 (it used to be Todd), likes controversy. He interviewed the porn star Stormy Daniels about her liaisons with Donald Trump, way back in 2007. Roger Stone has been a recent guest on his show. When Hulk Hogan sued Gawker for publishing footage of Hogan having sex with his best friend’s wife—which the best friend had arranged to record—Clem was the best friend.
Lightning-rod free-speech cases have often involved figures who are inconveniently unwholesome. The plaintiff in Brandenburg v. Ohio was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, the ruling in the Citizens United case protected the speech of corporations, and Larry Flynt was the centerpiece of Hustler Magazine v. Falwell.
To this list, we may add Clem, who has, in some quarters, been held up as a free-speech icon for his footloose, sometimes vile radio segments. After the Carlson incident, the byline “Bubba Clem” appeared on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal, where Clem argued that even contemptible sentiments should be protected from the “speech police.” He invoked Lenny Bruce and the theory of “benign violation”—that humor can’t exist without breaking taboos.
The other day, after finishing his show, Clem agreed to participate in a discussion about First Amendment scholarship, over the phone, from his studio in Tampa. He was joined by his lawyer and one of his producers.
Clem said that he’d been reading up on the law. “I’m probably more familiar with landmarks, you know, like Falwell v. Flynt,” he said. “I’m fairly up to speed.”
Did he believe that the Gawker case, in which the outlet was effectively sued out of existence for publishing a video, has negative First Amendment implications? “You cannot confuse the First Amendment with a privacy issue,” he said. “The First Amendment doesn’t give everybody the right to see or have access to—or even in a newsworthy-type deal to report on—footage that was in somebody’s bedroom and was never meant to be seen.”
Where would he rank the likes of James Madison among free-speech heroes? “I’m sure our country’s forefathers should be thanked before Howard Stern,” Clem said. “But not in my messed-up world.”
Clem was thrust into the speech battle on an otherwise normal Sunday evening, when he returned from a late dinner. “I live with my mom, by the way, and my mom’s a big Fox person,” he said. “She goes, ‘They’re trying to mess with you and Tucker!’ I’m, like, ‘What? What did he ever do?’ ” He added, “I’ve had homeless people on who have said very outlandish things, and nobody’s writing about them.” Clem stayed up that night reading Twitter—so late that he slept through his 3 a.m. alarm, and he skipped the show that morning. He never sought to be a free-speech champion, he said, but he felt that he and his friend were being unfairly attacked.
“I’m not nearly as brilliant as George Carlin,” Clem said. “But I try to be kind of a dumber, white-trash version of George Carlin.”
Being a dumb, white-trash George Carlin has its costs, such as being tried on felony charges of animal cruelty, in 2002, after he had a wild hog castrated and slaughtered on the air (he was found not guilty), or, in 2012, when his plan to “deep fat fry” the Quran was apparently shut down by David Petraeus, then the C.I.A. director.
Clem doesn’t argue with his critics’ right to lash out, but he is angry when the barbs are anonymous: “I can go be, you know, JimmyJam415 on Twitter, and if I don’t like your articles I can say the most outlandish things about you—‘I caught him in bed with a goat!’ ” It is the position of Bubba the Love Sponge that accusations of bestiality are best offered with one’s name attached.
Clem had a final thought, before hanging up. “Don’t write this any other way than you would,” he advised. “Just fuckin’ let it rip.”
His attorney, Jeffrey E. Nusinov, added his own counsel: “I’m just going to say, in the spirit of Bubba, don’t even let the editors see it.” ♦