Civility and Free Expression in Popular Culture

Civility and Free Expression in Popular Culture



Popular culture, in its many forms, both reflects and shapes our understandings of American society, its institutions, and its people. Through film, television, radio, literature, music, video games, and humor, we come to better understand and appreciate our shared values, individual perspectives, and diversity.

As each new genre appeared, however, controversy inevitably followed. Powerful works of fiction that challenged racial understandings, political institutions, or artistic limits with respect to sexual content were banned from public schools or libraries and occasionally burned, not only in the days of Jim Crow and twentieth-century America but also in much more recent times. Films, in particular, have provided fertile ground for different views about what constitutes obscenity.

The Motion Picture Association of America’s adoption and periodic revision of voluntary rating systems have helped to neutralize conflicts by providing parents and the general public with guidelines for assessing appropriateness for age or sensibilities. Television, given its presence in virtually every home in America since the 1950s, has been an especially sensitive medium, in which struggles about the appropriateness of foul language, sexual innuendo, the glamorizing of alcohol and drugs, and violence have periodically erupted. Nevertheless, the advent of cable television and parental controls (e.g., the V-Chip), as well as changing social mores, all helped to reduce conflicts. The story of video games has followed a similar path of voluntary controls, designed to keep youth from renting (if not playing) violent games without parental permission. Currently, music is perhaps the most contested arena of popular culture, with contemporary lyrics in urban, hip-hop, and rap music often challenging cultural and social boundaries.

This short review suggests how complex calls for greater civility across the many genres of popular culture can be.

The value of civility can and has been invoked by opponents of pornography, supporters of increased protections for children, book burners, and critics of the vulgarity of youth music. On the other side, supporters of unfettered freedom of expression typically seek to push political and cultural boundaries. In the landmark decision in Miller v. California (1973), the U.S. Supreme Court developed a stringent threepronged test to determine if materials were obscene, thereby providing protection to works having “literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

Questions for Discussion

Many areas of conflict mean that questions can provoke lively discussion on culture, mores, and law:

  • What limits on freedom of expression are constitutionally permissible under the First Amendment? Why?
  • In what ways (and at what ages) should children be more protected than adults from obscene or controversial content?
  • How can society encourage greater civility in the content and messages of its literary, musical, and film artists without compromising creative inquiry and the First Amendment?


Civility and Free Expression in a Constitutional Democracy is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities under the Bridging Cultures initiative. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Bar Association, or any of its program partners.