Little Fish in a Giant pond

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Time to add my own two cents on freedom of speech

A number of my blogger friends such as Vicky and Marc-André have both weighed in on the subject of what limits (if any) should be imposed on an individual's right to self-expression over the past few months, and with the latest "shock-jock" scandal just breaking south of the border (see link below), I thought I'd add my own two cents.

It seems that radio show host Don Imus has drawn the ire of a substantial portion of the American public by his repeated use of racial and sexist slurs.

As the above link demonstrates, this is nothing new for this individual. It appears that this time however, he has managed to step into a hornet's nest because the young black women he called "nappy-headed hos" are fighting back. It seems that the young ladies in question have actually rallied together and managed to attract the attention of such powerful activists as the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, who lobbied the network and appear to have succeeded in convincing the network to throw Imus off the air.

The problem? Well, obviously this brings up the major issue of free speech. From a legal point of view, it's not as big of a problem here in Canada, where all of our most important rights are guaranteed by the charter, but are subject to the reasonable limits clause (section 1 of the charter). In the states however, rights take on a more absolute form. Already, presidential hopeful John McCain has reportedly come out in favour of Imus.

The obvious argument in favour of the remarks is that no matter what he may have said, what he said was just words, and that as a society the American people should not be picking and choosing what they want to hear. The second they start to forbid one form of speech, they are leaving all other forms of speech, such as political criticism, wide open.

As important as it is to protect free speech, I have to say that I am quite comfortable limiting what someone does and does not have the right to express on national television. So long as the limits imposed on someone's rights are "reasonable" as is the general standard here in Canada (there is a more detailed set of standards outlined by the Supreme Court in R. v. Oakes).

As I wrote before when commenting on Marc-André's blog, the courts have long since enforced the tort of slander, which essentially allows an individual to seek re-payment if someone has unjustly made disparaging remarks about them. I can therefore see no reason why a group of people should not have the right to protection under the law from hateful remarks being made about them for no reason. It is one thing to point out foul deeds committed by one person; it is completely another thing to randomly assign a bunch of negative traits to an entire group of people based simply on stereotypical beliefs.

In Imus' case, he has been lucky enough not to be prosecuted (I am not aware of what if any hate-speech legislation exists in the states). The fact that he has at least admitted that his comments were "stupid" has at least some sort of redeeming quality to, however given that this is not exactly a first strike for the man, I am willing to say that he has been punished fairly.


  • So 50 cent can talk about slapping hos and shooting guns on a record but Imus can't on the radio waves.

    Thats not freedom of speech.

    Imus's comment wasn't inflammatory. Bad taste to some people, but since when is freedom of speech only guarenteed to those who won't offend anybody?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:17 AM  

  • Oh, and for what its worth, there is a pretty easy way to get somebody like Imus off the airwaves if you don't like what they say.

    See your radio? That little button on the side? Its called a dial.

    Turn it, and if enough other people also do it then the show will eventually get taken off for financial reasons.

    If you do it, and nobody else does, then the show stays on and you are a prude for not being able to handle his jokes ;) .

    There is no need for limiting his free speech. If people don't like it they can turn the radio off.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:19 AM  

  • i'm agnostic on whether he should have been fired or not. certainly an example needed to be made. if i were on the basketball team, i would have sued him for defamation. free speech doesn't include defaming peoples' reputations. if some knob-gobblin like bill-o accused me, a liberal, of being a terrorist sympathizer...i'd sue him too.

    free speech also doesn't include hate speech. the xenophobic and racial fervour stirred up by rightwhingers during the jyllands-posten cartoon affair demonstrated hwo many use free speech as a means to promote hatred. that ain't right.

    By Blogger canuckistanian, at 11:16 AM  

  • where is the fcc??? janet jackson's nipple pops out and cbs is fined 500k, but hatemongers on the radio and tv are allowed to propagate their intolerance with impugnity???

    By Blogger canuckistanian, at 11:17 AM  

  • Some perversions of "free speech" don't include so called "hate speech", but TRUE free speech includes everything.

    The ONLY exceptions which should be made are explicit threats and open incitement of hatred. If that is what you mean by "hate speech", I agree with you.

    What Imus said was NOT hate speech. It was a joke... a play on hip hop culture... Maybe it was bad taste, that is open to interpretation.

    If somebody gets on the radio and says "Its time to kill all blacks and burn crosses.", that is one thing.

    Bad taste and offensive jokes is a completely different matter. Once you start persecuting people for making jokes judged as "bad taste" in the media, where do you stop? Who decides what is good taste and what is bad taste? How long before the only comedy and entertainment we are allowed to view are corny and sterile knock knock jokes designed not to make anybody upset.

    By Anonymous Pete, at 1:12 PM  

  • Anonymous, are you throwing up 50 cent to me? Let me be the first to say that I am anything but a connoisseur of rap music. So I can't really speak intelligently about what any rapper does or does not say. I will say this though; it is my opinion that any material PROMOTING violence against or the degradation of women or anyone else is not acceptable.

    Please note that there is a huge difference between PROMOTING a way of life (i.e. "slapping hos and shooting guns") and simply singing about the hardships of one's social background. Again let me say that I truly don't know enough about the material of the rapper you mentioned to say whether his works reflect one or the other.

    It is also worth mentioning that rap is a form of artistic expression and can often have abstract meanings. I'm not saying that the arts should be given carte blanche for hate speech, but I will say that the artistic merits of the material being questioned should be taken into account.

    With respect to your second comment, it sounds like that is exactly what happened. The public reacted in outrage, and the network canceled his show.

    Canuckistan makes a good point. It appears that most of the backlash from this has come from the public itself. I am unaware of any interest from the American justice system.

    I imagine that the basketball players in question could very easily sue him for defamation, as he essentially called them prostitutes. I imagine that since his “accusation” was obviously untrue, they would probably have little less than symbolic damages awarded to them if they sued here, but in the states judgments are often quite severe.

    By Blogger Fish, at 1:32 PM  

  • Pete, calling black women prostitutes is not a harmless joke. It is a vicious attempt to ridicule black women that has been veiled as humour.

    Fart jokes are in bad taste (but I can't resist lauging at them, Geroge Carlin has produced some of the best!). Racist "humour" is a tool for attacking minorities.

    By Blogger Fish, at 1:39 PM  

  • Well I must simply add my two cents here. You are implying that this is unidirectional. Comming from a background who has racial jokes thrown as it with impunity. I am white. There is no limit to the number of comics who make a killing by leaning on a sad sorry crutch (all be it funny) of racial jokes concerning the "white guys". We however have come to learn to how to deal with said problem. We laugh and take the humor as it is intended. As HUMOR.
    so maybe the minorities could take a lesson from the beleugered white dudes and learn to take remarks with a grain of salt.

    Secondly these girls were probably well aware of this guy's reputation as most listeners are when they're calling into a radio show be it local or national. Therefore how in the world are they not partially responsible for the reaction?

    I didn't take the time to listen in and I'm not a hundred percent sure of all the details but it sounds to me like even though i dont support comments like that i am not so quick to pass judgement on people for their opinions.

    By Blogger Beer Guy, at 8:36 PM  

  • Well little brother, I've gotta disagree with you on this one.

    I'm not exactly sure what you mean by "Therefore how in the world are they not partially responsible for the reaction?" But I'm thinking that they are quite happy to take responsability for the reaction, as the ultimate result was in their favour.

    Furthermore, I'd wager the girls probably weren't listening to the show when it was originally broadcast. But when someone insults you personally over the airwaves, I assure you chances are it will get back to you.

    How can you possibly expect someone to laugh when someone is hurling a degrading insult at them through the airwaves? The members of the basketball team in question here were just reacting to Imus calling them "nappy headed hos". I can assure you that if some total stranger singled me out and slandered me in public, he could count on a reaction.

    As I said in a previous comment, special consideration should be given to artistic expression (though not a carte blanche). Such comedians as Chris Rock and Russell Peters have built their careers using "the crutch"(as you put it) of racial humour quite successfully. But try to remember that they are artists, and as such there is often an abstract meaning in what they say.

    I'll now try to illustrate this with an example. When Russell Peters Jokes about the Canadian accent, he does so on the heels of several hilarious jokes about the practical uses of the Indian accent. He is not trying to convince anybody that Canadian caucasians or Indo-Canadians are born with speech impediments and are therefore inferior to any one else. He is merely pointing out one of the humourous little differences that is more obvious to someone with his perspective.

    This is of course in stark contrast to the remark made by Imus, who expects us to find humour in his making disparaging remarks toward black women based on a negative stereotype. If a comedian or radio host of any race ever called me a "spook" or anything else, I assure you that I would be every bit as offended as these young ladies.

    By Blogger Fish, at 9:01 PM  

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