Comedy as freedom of expression

Publication Date09 Mar 2010
AuthorPaul Sturges
SubjectInformation & knowledge management,Library & information science
Comedy as freedom of expression
Paul Sturges
Department of Information Science, Loughborough University,
Loughborough, UK
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to investigate the practice of comedians in relation to freedom
of expression, so as to throw light on the issue of giving or avoiding offence.
Design/methodology/approach – The literature of comedy, newspaper coverage of comedy in the
UK in 2008, observation of comedians in performance, and a small, informal interview programme
with stand up comedians were used in the preparation of the paper.
Findings – Stand up comedians, despite their own sense that they defy restriction and popular
perception of their material as often offensive, do monitor their material for potential offence. They
assess the extent of offence and modify their performances in response. In some cases they apply
personal formulae to this process.
Research limitations/implications – The interview programme is too small to claim to be fully
representative and is intended only to give an indicative view of the field.
Practical implications Examination of comedians’ practice has implications for information
service institutions and the giving of access to potentially offensive content.
Originality/value – The paper may be the first study of comedy in an information science context
and it contains implications for further studies that use comedy as an example of content, and creative
practice to further develop understanding of information provision issues.
Keywords United Kingdom,Information exchange, Entertainmentindustry, Freedom of information,
Paper type Research paper
Information science is a broad, inclusive disciplinary area. If rather than looking to
define or delimit it, we look for its driving principle or ethical rationale a good choice
would be Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights. This is a
powerful statement on intellectual freedom encompassing freedom of opinion,
expression and access to information. Without the freedom to generate, organise,
access and use information there would be very limited scope for information science.
However, despite this, intellectual freedom issues have never been a substantial
preoccupation of the information science literature: freedom has been taken as a given.
An obvious reason for this is that in the past the bulk of information science literature
has been generated in the USA, and northern Europe. In these parts of the world and
historically related countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, there has
been such a long, and largely unquestioned tradition of free speech (Grayling, 2007)
that the struggles to obtain and preserve intellectual freedom in other parts of the
world can easily escape notice. In a globalised communications environment,
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
In finalizing the text of this article, the author has complied with house style, which does not
accept “bad language” because it might give offence. However, he notes, wryly, that the process
of making the necessary changes to his text actually contributes something to the argument of
the article.
Comedy as
freedom of
Received 4 March 2009
Revised 27 July 2009
Accepted 29 July 2009
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 66 No. 2, 2010
pp. 279-293
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/00220411011023661

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