Lynching the First

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The mayor of a small town in the Houston area has decided that protecting freedom of speech is less important than making sure nobody is offended when the word "nigger" is uttered in a certain tone and in a certain context.

Brazoria Mayor Ken Corley wants offensive use of the "n-word" to be punishable by a fine of up to $500 in his town.

"It's not a particular problem in Brazoria," Corley said, "but it's a national problem."

Corley said he got the idea while watching two black ministers talking on television about how offensive that word is. "I just think it would be great if this little town of Brazoria, with 2,800 people, leads the way in fighting against this offensive language," said Corley.

He said if the ordinance passes, he may ask for it to be expanded to include other racial slurs.

He believes Brazoria would be the first place in the country where the racial slur would be outlawed. But at least one legal expert said Monday that such an ordinance may not stand up in court.

The ordinance wouldn't forbid anyone from saying the word, Corley said, but would outlaw using the word in an offensive or aggressive manner. Violators would be charged with disturbing the peace, he said.

"It would be up to somebody who was offended to file a complaint, like any other disturbance complaint," he said.

The person charged would appear before a municipal judge and be liable for a fine of up to $500, he said.
The mayor, who is white, seems so busy pandering that he has forgotten entirely about the existence of individual rights and the First Amendment, not to mention how such a ban could spread like a cancer once it is passed and applied to other, similar words.

Fortunately, one of Brazoria's poor, defenseless black inhabitants does have the sense to grasp these issues.
As for people who use the racial slur, [the Rev. Melvin] Johnson, who is black and a lifelong resident of Brazoria said, "they have a constitutional right to be stupid."

He said the proposal singles out the actions of one racial group (whites) against another racial group (blacks). He said he's drawn up a list of at least 40 different words that are offensive to African-Americans. "There are words that are offensive to Hispanics, Asians and whites as well," he said. [bold added]
As an aside, note that Johnson shows the appropriate emotional reaction -- somewhere between mild annoyance and contempt -- for someone who uses racial epithets to insult others.

The article notes that the ordinance would not likely stand up in court if passed, and that, "the use of offensive language is protected by the First Amendment. The only possible exception ... [being] if the use of the language is connected with a hate crime." [my bold]

The article, unfortunately and entirely by accident, shows the real problem by failing to treat the existence of the hate crimes legislation already on the books as anything out of the ordinary.

As I have discussed in detail before, hate crimes legislation is wrong because it results in prosecuting certain crimes more vigorously than others, based on the beliefs of the criminal.
Punishing someone for his beliefs in addition to his actual crime is, in fact, exactly the opposite of what the government should be doing. For example, if someone gets ten years for a crime and has two more added on because he is "guilty" of a "hate crime," he's being jailed two years for his ideas by the government.

Freedom of speech is guaranteed in our Constitution because government regulation of speech would prevent the open exchange of ideas. But if we criminalize ideas themselves, the guarantee of freedom of speech becomes meaningless. The American Revolution was fought not primarily with the sword, but with the pen. The writings of such men as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay were instrumental in providing the theoretical framework for our form of government as well as convincing others to fight off tyranny. Our life, liberty, and happiness were won through, and depend upon, a free, open exchange of ideas.
As one self-described "secular conservative" pundit might put it: The good news is that we probably are not yet about to see individual words being banned; the bad news is that some beliefs are already punishable by law under certain circumstances.

So this silly scheme of Brazoria's will probably fail -- this time. But until the larger debate is moved from how to use the law to criminalize thought to how to use it to protect rights again, there really is no good news.

-- CAV

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