Our opinion: Free speech and the discussion we're not having
We like to think that as we age, we get wiser. But time after time we are confronted with the fact that age by no means guarantees wisdom.
Case in point: Robert Copeland, a police commissioner in Wolfeboro, N.H., who was heard to call Pres. Barack Obama a particularly offensive racial slur preceded by a particularly offensive modifier. Apparently, Copeland cursed the president in a private conversation in a public spot and was overheard by at least one other person.
What was the 82-year-old's response after getting called out for uttering this despicable pejorative?
"I believe I did use the ‘N' word in reference to the current occupant of the Whitehouse (sic)," he wrote in an e-mail response to the controversy. "For this I do not apologize -- he meets and exceeds my criteria for such."
Copeland is the head of the town's three-member police commission, which is responsible for hiring police officers. Because Copeland is an elected official and because there is no recall mechanism in Wolfeboro, the only way for him to be relieved of his position was to resign. On Monday afternoon, after pressure from the town manager, the board of selectmen, residents and people around the Granite State and the nation, Copeland resigned. But that's surely not the end of the story.
Defenders of and apologists for Copeland have cited his First Amendment rights to say what he wants, when he wants and where he wants. But Keli Goff, writing for The Root, notes Copeland's position of authority makes his comments especially disturbing.
"While freedom of speech is clearly one of the bedrocks of American culture, the right not to fear those sworn to serve and protect us should be another. But for too many, particularly men of color, that fear is all too real."
Ken White, writing for Popehat.com, notes that while racist speech is not sanctionable, it should have social consequences.
"When you talk, people will draw conclusions about your intentions based on your words."
That's exactly what is concerning to Goff. If this is the way Copeland speaks, how does his opinion influence who he approved for hire in Wolfeboro's police department?
"Consider, for a moment, if you were a black motorist planning to visit New Hampshire anytime soon. How comfortable would you now feel driving through the town of Wolfeboro late at night, knowing that Robert Copeland played a role in dictating how officers handle traffic stops?"
Gene Howington, writing about the consequences of free speech on Jonathan Turley's web blog, notes that if you value free speech, then you must accept you will hear things that you disagree with or offend you.
"If you don't accept this fact, then you value freedom of speech as long as you approve of what others say first and that, by definition, is not free. If you value freedom of speech, you'll never try to censor."
Our response to Howington would be police, and the people who hire and fire them, are given the power of life and death over all of us and are given extreme latitude to exercise their good judgment when it comes to employing lethal force. Because of that, we should demand that those who enforce the law are as free of bias as possible and are held to the highest ethical standards. Copeland fails on both prerequisites. Calling on him to resign is not censorship; it's paying the social consequences for his overtly expressed racism. He can now say whatever he wants to say, only not from a position of authority that affects so many people in his town.
Other defenders of Copeland point to the lyrics of rap music and the musings of black comedians, in which the "N" word plays a prominent role. If the rappers and people like Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor can use the word, argue Copeland's apologists, why can't we?
We hold no sympathy for that argument. While many ethnic groups have been known to poke fun at their own identities or use pejoratives in describing themselves (Italians, Poles, Jews, Asians come to mind), that is their right because it is often done as an indication of pride or as an insider's perspective on their upbringing. But use of those words by people outside of the framework of ethnicity is no longer social commentary, it's out-and-out racism and should be condemned.
Many people like to think that by electing a black man to the highest office in the nation, the United States has finally put behind it its long legacy of racism. But, in fact, the vile bile that has spewed from the right wing since Obama's election has only proven how far we have yet to go.
Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University professor, told the Washington Post the Obama presidency has led to an increase in outward expressions of racism and that studies conducted over the past six years have found that as many as 50 percent of white Americans openly express anti-black sentiments during in-person surveys.
For Krosnick, Copeland's comments are not all that surprising.
"As shocking as these comments may be to people who live in circles that do not share those views, anti-black views are not as uncommon as some might expect. Although this is an example of a little person who holds a little job in a little town, this is emblematic of where we are right now as a nation."
But just focusing on Copeland, and recent comments made by men such as Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy does a disservice to the debate we need to continue to have in America.
"The cycle of racist utterance, shame, and demand for apology directs our attention away from institutional racism, inequality, and the racism that is often unsaid," writes Stacy Teicher Khadaroo for the Christian Science Monitor. "Individual challenges are important, but movements for justice, to transform the culture that produces hate and inequality ... are crucial."
And saying it's just older Americans who hold these views is simply inaccurate, she notes.
"To explain these incidents by the age of the offenders would be a mistake ... as it relies on a belief that racism is a relic and that racists won't be with us much longer, so we can avoid the hard work of confronting racism that runs the gamut of age groups in American society."
Whack-a-mole has become the hallmark of today's 24-hour news cycle. It's much more rewarding to slam a racist for some offhand remark than it is to address institutional racism, admit to past and present wrongs, fix our justice system so that it is indeed colorblind and take an introspective look at our own deep-seated biases and prejudices. Like it or not, we are all creatures of our upbringing and the messages that subtly (and not so subtly) permeate our consciousness. While we like to think that we are all kind hearted and not likely to speak such buffoonish and hateful comments as Copeland, Sterling and Bundy, we are children of a flawed society that is not as equal as it purports to be. By being aware of and admitting to our own imperfections, perhaps we can help heal society at large and become truly egalitarian. Men such as the three mentioned above should be the impetus to achieve that.
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