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Honolulu Lite

by Charles Memminger

Friday, March 31, 2000

The naked truth
about free speech

The great thing about our country and our legal system is that you occasionally get to hear otherwise serious and dignified people like Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor say things like pasties and G-strings.

Well, we didn't get to actually hear her say the words because the stodgy old Supreme Court still doesn't allow television cameras in its hallowed chamber. But she used the words in an incredibly important ruling this week that said nude dancing in clubs is not the same thing as standing on a corner and telling anyone who will listen that you were abducted by aliens.

One (talking like a crazy person) is free speech, protected by the United States Constitution, and the other (shaking your unadorned booty) isn't.

The Constitution is the legal glue that holds our country together, and crummy little third world countries that don't have constitutions miss out on a lot of fun. People involved directly with the Constitution, mainly judges, take themselves very seriously. They wear dark robes as a visual clue that what they are doing is a lot more important than what the rest of us are doing.

It's not really fair. If I walked around in a black robe, people would just think I'm nuts. Put the same robe on an ugly pug like Tony Scalia and suddenly he's considered one of the smartest guys in the world.

The Supreme Court is like the referee of a boxing match. The boxing authority (Congress) makes the rules. The boxers (citizens) agree to play by rules. The referee (Supreme Court) keeps the citizens from hitting each other south of the border. (I'm not sure who the president is in this analogy. I think he's Don King.)

The Supreme Court is at its most amusing when it wrestles with First Amendment issues, specifically, free speech. Free speech was really important to our founding fathers because they were always jabbering about one thing or another. England told them to shut up if they knew what was good for them. And that, in a nutshell, is what started the Revolutionary War.

The founders made it clear that in a free country, people had to be free to express themselves. And ever since then, about 45 minutes after the ink dried on the Constitution, people have been arguing over just how free free speech should be. Can kids pray in schools? Can you burn the flag? Can you claim that four out of five dentists recommend your product?

Sometimes, the free speech argument gets bogged down in lurid minutiae. And then it's up to the Supremes to sort out details. Like, guys go to strip clubs to drink beer and watch naked women dance. True, it's not as high a calling as polio research, but going to strip clubs is a fairly harmless pursuit among consenting adults. Nevertheless, some cities ban it.

Club owners claim the dancers have a free speech right to express themselves unclothed. In comes the matronly Justice O'Connor, solemnly clad in a black muumuu (we assume she's wearing undergarments) to rule that nude dancing is not protected by the Constitution. But, she points out, covering the dancers' nasty bits with pasties and a G-string IS protected by the Constitution. What a great country.

I have a hard time imagining Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and the rest of the gang sitting around discussing how pasties fit into the legal fabric of this great new nation, which is a good thing. Franklin would have thought a G-string had something to do with a kite.

Charles Memminger, winner of
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
awards in 1994 and 1992, writes "Honolulu Lite"
Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Write to him at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,
P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, 96802
or send E-mail to or

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