All Speech Is Free, Except When It Isn’t

A recent Sean Kirst article explored the dark side of words that demean others, specifically the use of the word retard.

The State recently re-named The Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (OMRDD), creating the new Office of Persons With Developmental Disabilities (OPDD). This has dovetailed with recent efforts, such as the one at my alma mater Fayetteville-Manlius High School, to eliminate the casual use of the words retard (as a noun) or retarded (as an adjective and adverb.)

I’m all for voluntary efforts to be more respectful of groups in our society that have endured painful, stigmatizing and demoralizing language hurled their way. Whether the intent to hurt was present or if the language was unintentionally cruel, it is a tribute to our nation’s attempts to be inclusive that people empathize with those who feel they have been disrespected.

Where I get off the bandwagon is when the efforts are codified by institutions such as schools or governments. However much we might dislike the boorish and cruel behavior of people who hurt and demean others with words, we must remember that those words are protected by our constitution–and people’s feelings are not.

I am a First amendment guy. Freedom of speech is as American a principle as there is– anyone should be able to say what they want and not suffer the consequences of arbitrary punishment. Of course, absolutes aren’t always absolute. The most famous challenge to free speech absolutism is, of course, the Oliver Wendell Holmes query about a prankster yelling “Fire!” in a crowded movie house–running the risk of a stampede and potential injuries. Courts have also ruminated about publishing or divulging imminent troop movements during times of war. So all speech is not absolutely free.

But we should strive to unshackle speech from official punishment and sanction. I would never support a school trying to enact a speech code with punishments for the use of language considered by someone to be offensive. As a friend of mine once joked: “You can call [speech codes] misguided or possibly ill conceived or maybe not even those as blind people with poorly trained dogs and the anti-abortion crowd might get offended by those descriptions.”

However, private condemnation is a powerful force and can change the tone of discourse. My father, a lawyer, explained this to me as a young kid when I complained about kids using the racial epithet beginning with “n” on the playground–something my parents had explained to me that I should never do because of its hateful origins. “You can’t force people to do what you want” my father explained “but you don’t have to accept it either.”

I didn’t really understand what my father was trying to tell me back then, but his attempts to explain the ambiguous nature of concepts such as speech, hatred, power and constitutional law form the core of my beliefs even now. In my lifetime, I have seen epithets such as the “n” word and the acronym of Jewish American Princess largely disappear from polite society, largely through the force of public disapproval.

But, though it may be wrong, I will probably always laugh at things such as this scene from The Office:

Michael Scott: “You don’t call retarded people retards. It’s bad
taste. You call your friends retards when they are acting retarded.”


4 thoughts on “All Speech Is Free, Except When It Isn’t

  1. NYCO

    I’m still ambivalent over the fact that a guy can call me the c-word in public (conceivably… hasn’t actually happened yet) but I can’t call him the f-word in public (in return) if I wanted to, because the force of public disapproval has become so strong around that word (and indeed, I have friends and relatives who are gay who might feel demeaned if the word were used on or around them, which is why I never use it anyway whether they’re around or not). But is it wrong that, thinking about this scenario, I sort of feel as if I’ve been deprived of a powerful word-weapon, when men can still use certain word-weapons against ME and not face any real social disapproval? (am I just supposed to turn the other cheek and say nothing?)

    Sort of reminds me of your example from “The Office,” in a way…


  2. I guess what I was suggesting is a private, grassroots campaign of hammering word-weapons into plowshares! Society should struggle to be civilized enough that we take others’ concerns into account–but avoid public sanctions other than disapproval.

    My cognitive dissonance on this issue goes off the charts– i say impolitic things all the time. I love shock comedy that pushes boundaries of taste and political sensitivities (eg: Sarah Silverman) and I’m also a lefty, humanist.

    Lastly: I just realized that I quoted Michael Scott of the Office approvingly–he’s the clueless dingbat of the show! Is that really why I laughed so hard at that scene?


  3. NYCO

    You mentioned the “JAP” thing at SU… I was there for that… it was a one-year disapproval campaign waged primarily by Gary Spencer, one of my professors.

    Word-weapons are not good, but what would I do in the heat of the moment? Not sure.


  4. i wrote the column because of the passion christine paronis feels on this subject – absolutely righteous passion, i think we would all agree. if you read her arguments, she is hardly calling for a government ban on use of the word ‘retard.’ she is saying that for people who are developmentally disabled, use of that word is devastating, and she would hope people would simply think twice or begin to feel some empathy.

    as for your point, nyco, i would hope we are not at a point where use of either of those words as deeply-felt taunts or barbs would be casually acceptable. if we are, then i’m impossibly sheltered.



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