May 14, 2022

JACK DUNPHY: Dave Chappelle and the Death of Free Speech.

[L.A. D.A George] Gascón is currently facing a recall campaign, and his refusal to file felony charges against Lee has stoked outrage among his detractors, whose number now includes podcaster Joe Rogan. Rogan took to Instagram to lament Gascón’s decision. “When you see that a person commits a clear crime,” says Rogan’s post, “and does it to one of the most loved performers alive, and does it in a very high profile public setting, and it gets captured on video, and you don’t charge that person for what they obviously did, it’s the kind of thing that makes people lose faith in law enforcement.”

Perhaps so, but loath as I am to defend Gascón, his rejection of felony charges in the Chappelle matter is entirely reasonable and indeed the only ethical choice. It may be true that Chappelle is, as Rogan describes him, one of the most beloved performers, and it is indisputably true that the Hollywood Bowl is a high-profile public setting, but neither of these factors weighs in the determination of the appropriate charge against Lee. He was arrested and booked under a charge of assault with a deadly weapon, but sober examination of the incident reveals his conduct did not match the elements of this crime under California law.

Yes, at the time Lee rushed the stage and assaulted Chappelle, he is said to have possessed a deadly weapon, to wit, a replica handgun built into which was a folding knife, but it was in a bag Lee carried and was never wielded at Chappelle or any of the men who pursued and subdued Lee backstage. Further, Chappelle was uninjured and continued his performance when the commotion settled. Not even the most aggressive, law-and-order prosecutor would file a felony charge given this set of facts.

Though Chappelle soldiered on and appeared unfazed, as his fans have come to expect, in his quiet moments since that day he surely must have wondered, as we all must have, what might have happened had Lee been more determined to cause him harm. Lee somehow carried his weapon through the Hollywood Bowl’s security measures, then to the foot of the stage and finally onto the stage itself. Lee easily could have inflicted a mortal wound on Chappelle with such a weapon. And consider that if a replica handgun passed through security with such apparent ease, what would have prevented Lee from bringing a real one?

Returning now to our aspiring comedian, what assurance does he have that one of his jokes will not ignite in some member of his audience a violent impulse similar to that which stirred within Isaiah Lee? If Dave Chappelle, with all his handlers and security team, can be attacked in front of 17,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl, what chance does an unknown have at the local comedy club should some lunatic try to take him out?

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