The would-be censors of “hate speech” are at it again. This time the target is irrepressible radio talkmeister Don Imus, who mouthed off (nothing new in that) on his nationally syndicated radio talk show, carried in Boston by WTKK 96.9 FM. Imus had the bad judgment to refer to the members of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “rough girls” and “nappy-headed hos.” The team is predominantly black, resulting in an uproar from a variety of do-gooder speech police always on the look-out for insult.
It is, of course, fine to lambaste such puerile broadcast patter. And there’s nothing to stop the station’s management from suspending Imus – as they did for two weeks in the face of the uproar – in order to make clear its dissatisfaction with the extent to which Imus crosses some line when insulting this or that person or group. It is not as if the government has stepped in to censor politically incorrect broadcast speech (although, sadly, the Federal Communications Commission has indeed been given some such power, by Congress and the Supreme Court, when it comes to sexually “indecent” speech).
I find it odd, though, that forays like Imus’ into the realm of insulting speech should continue to raise such hackles. One would have thought that the Supreme Court had the last word on the social benefits of offensive speech when the court unanimously reversed a jury’s verdict against Hustler Magazine and its publisher Larry Flynt, in a 1988 lawsuit brought by the Rev. Jerry Falwell for “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” The magazine published a parody advertisement claiming that the good reverend’s “first time” was with his mother, in a drunken orgy that took place in an outhouse. The court noted that, although the faux ad was “gross and repugnant in the eyes of most,” no one with half a brain would assume the story to be “reasonably believable”; it was an insulting parody lodged against a holier-than-thou public figure. The court went on to discuss the important role played by vile parody in the history of the nation, before concluding that “it is clear that our political discourse would have been considerably poorer without [it].”
And there is something disturbing about the fact that the self-appointed PC police have accumulated sufficient power to cause talk-show hosts to look warily over their shoulders every time they say something remotely offensive. Among the main critics of Imus, who is rightly considered by some to be a serious if acerbic observer of modern-day hypocrisy and idiocy, are the gruesome twosome of Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, who long ago lost the moral authority to attack a man like Imus, thanks to, respectively, Sharpton’s infamous Tawana Brawley hoax scandal and Jackson’s adulterous sex scandal involving a former aide.
Certain topics have become taboo in our modern culture, considered inappropriate for frank, even humorous discussion. It started with college speech codes in the 1980s, as college administrators decided that uncomfortable speech concerning “historically disadvantaged” groups constituted a form of “harassment” and banned it. Since then, the categories of people whose sensibilities are being protected by the censors among us have grown like Topsy, until it is now inadvisable to make fun of anyone on radio or television unless he happens to be a governmental official. In the latter case, one has to worry not about self-appointed censors, but about wiretaps and dirty tricks. Sad.