Imus: The Lawsuit

        Maybe I should watch what I say in discussing Kia Vaughn’s defamation lawsuit against Don Imus.  Vaughn, a member of the Rutger’s women basketball team, is suing Imus for referring to her team as “nappy headed ho’s.” No reasonable person would have interpreted Imus’s remark as anything but a crude, stupid, or racist joke; and indeed Rutgers basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer criticized Imus for making her team the butt of his “joke.”  But if Imus was joking, if he was engaged in satire, however stupid or cruel, then he is arguably not liable for defamation; so Vaughn’s lawyer, Richard B. Ancowitz, insists that Imus made his remark, “during a news report, it wasn't done during a comedy bit.”        

        This blog is not a “comedy bit” either; so I better not describe Ancowitz as an ambulance chasing buffoon or make any wisecracks about shyster lawyers.  I should also refrain from mocking Vaughn for filing this suit and exploiting her exalted status as a victim of Imus’s joke.  (If I wanted to describe her as air-headed, I’d check with my lawyer first.)

        I would, of course, have very strong First Amendment defenses against any lawsuit brought by Vaughn for denigrating her claim or questioning her motives as well as her understanding of free speech.  But I don’t want to spend any time or money defending myself against a frivolous claim.  Who would?  I prefer to engage in a little self-censorship.  I bet that Imus and both CBS and MSNBC (also sued by Vaughn) would prefer to settle her claim (and watch what they say) rather than suffer the expense and publicity of litigating it.  So if Vaughn’s intent is to chill politically incorrect speech, she may already have succeeded.

        According to Attorney Ancowitz however, Vaughn seeks simply to “restore (her) good name and reputation.”  Imus has “come out smelling like a rose,” Ancowitz complains absurdly.  “But what about these young women?” As anyone with a short-term memory will recall, Imus was widely condemned, ridiculed, and fired for his remarks, (for which he abjectly apologized.)  In fact, it was the Rutger’s women’s basketball team that “came out smelling like a rose.” Pictured on the front page of the New York Times (and on Hillary Clinton’s website,) they were widely celebrated for their academic and athletic achievements, as well as for their dignity and grace in accepting Imus’s apology. (Apparently when coach Stringer declared that she and the team had accepted his apology and were in the “process of forgiving,” she was not speaking for Kia Vaughn.)

        What will Vaughn do with any proceeds from her suit?  Ancowitz unctuously claims that she will establish a scholarship program to study the social effects of bigoted speech.  Personally, I have long worried much more about the effects of speech policing and the cultural tendency to seek self-esteem in victimhood.  As strong, accomplished, self-respecting young women – not the sort to be traumatized by one thoughtless, stupid insult - Vaughn and her teammates seemed to represent a different, healthier feminist ideal. Her lawsuit is apt to turn a testament to feminist success into a symbol of feminist failure.

UPDATE, September 12, 2007
        Never mind: Kia Vaughn dropped her lawsuit against Imus and CBS, explaining, through a spokeswoman, that she wanted to focus on basketball and her education at Rutgers University where she is -- get this -- a journalism major.  If Rutgers offers a course on freedom of the press, Vaughn should probably take it.

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