Bill Cosby’s career has been deeply rooted in the possibilities and protections provided by freedom of speech. The legendary comedian and actor’s career began with landmark comedy routines in which he tackled sensitive racial subjects. He was the first black male with a starring role on TV, in the 1960s series “I Spy.”
The late-’80s, early-’90s sitcom “The Cosby Show” featured an affluent, professional black family that countered decades of denigrating stereotypes. And, most recently, he’s made headlines as a public observer and candid counselor on matters involving fellow blacks.
Claims have now come to light that Cosby drugged and then sexually assaulted a number of young women, in incidents reaching back into the ’60s. Various news reports say no criminal charges are likely because of statutory time limits on prosecution.
The Cosby furor exploded in social media in recent days, starting with video of comedian Hannibal Buress inviting an audience to “Google Bill Cosby rape.”
Then, in a National Public Radio interview aired on Nov. 15, in which Cosby and his wife, Camille, had been talking about their collection of African art, NPR host Scott Simon switched subjects: “This question gives me no pleasure, Mr. Cosby, but there have been serious allegations raised about you in recent days.” When Cosby did not speak, Simon continued, “You’re shaking your head ‘no.’ I’m in the news business. I have to ask the question. Do you have any response to those charges?” Still, silence from Cosby.
In the days since, more women have come forward with graphic claims of sexual assault. Appearances on television and entertainment projects involving Cosby have been canceled, and his lawyer says no response is forthcoming. But Cosby’s critics continue to rage across Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
We’ve seen such controversies play out in the past in very different ways.
A little less than 90 years ago, a beloved entertainer also faced stunning allegations involving a claim of sexual assault. Newspaper accounts in 1921 raged around comedian “Fatty” Arbuckle following the alleged assault and subsequent death of 26-year-old Virginia Rappe. Ironically, the silent film star was forced to speak out to counter the media blitz. Two juries deadlocked, and the third jury voted for acquittal, but Arbuckle’s career never recovered.
In a much more contemporary example, filmmaker Woody Allen used a guest column in The New York Times in February to respond to the resurfacing of 21-year-old allegations that he had sexually abused an adopted daughter. Allen said at the time that “This piece will be my final word on this entire matter and no one will be responding on my behalf to any further comments.”
Traditional media, in Cosby’s case, already are being criticized for not jumping on the stories earlier. Cosby’s lawyer has rightly noted of the widespread claims against his client that “the fact that they are being repeated does not make them true.” And Cosby’s right of free speech certainly carries the right not to speak.
But in this news-and-information-saturated era, and with his accusers having ready access to social media to reach everywhere, Cosby’s approach of “silent until proven guilty” might not carry the day in terms of protecting his reputation and preserving his career.
Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center.