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  • Dr. Laura's n-word and the First Amendment

    Dr. Laura announces on 'Larry King Live' that she's quitting radio
    Dr. Laura announces on 'Larry King Live' that she's quitting radio

    On August 10, the radio pop psychologist Dr. Laura, who has a Ph.D. in physiology, not psychology (her thesis was about insulin in rats), got into trouble for saying the n-word on the air to a black caller who was complaining about frequent racist comments made by her white husband and his friends.

    Speech may be free, but language has consequences. The next day Dr. Laura, who claimed her caller was being oversensitive, apologized for "articulat[ing] the n-word all the way out--more than one time. And that was wrong. I'll say it again--that was wrong." And a week after that she told CNN's Larry King that she was quitting radio to "regain my First Amendment rights" that were "usurped by angry, hateful groups who don't want to debate--they want to eliminate"--which suggests that Dr. Laura thinks her articulation of the n-word "all the way out" was not so wrong at all, because it is her First Amendment right to say it and anything else that's on her mind.

    Sarah Palin seems to agree. The day after Dr. Laura quit radio, Palin, another celebrity who walked away from her job to avoid the public scrutiny of her words and deeds, sent out two tweets supporting Dr. Laura’s right to say the n-word:

         Dr.Laura=even more powerful & effective w/out the shackles, so watch out Constitutional obstructionists. And b thankful 4 her voice,America!

         Dr.Laura:don't retreat...reload! (Steps aside bc her 1st Amend.rights ceased 2exist thx 2activists trying 2silence"isn't American,not fair”)

    (Audio and a transcript of Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s race-based rant can be found here, and her comments on Larry King’s show here. Sarah Palin’s Twitter feed is here.)

    For decades conservatives have been complaining that too many people who ought to keep their mouths shut are instead permitted to say whatever they want, no matter how radical or offensive, while hiding behind the mantle of the First Amendment. But in the case of Dr. Laura and the n-word, it is conservatives who are invoking the First Amendment as protection for their own offensive speech.

    Despite her stunning claim on “Larry King Live,” Dr. Laura’s First Amendment rights never “ceased 2exist.” The First Amendment prohibits the government from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Congress made no law abridging Dr. Laura’s First Amendment rights, nor were those rights usurped by any of the several states. Instead she was attacked, ridiculed, criticized, or mocked in the press, on the air, in private, even on blogs, for being racist, insensitive, foolish, or just plain wrong. And that’s not surprising, since the First Amendment does not protect speakers from having to face the consequences of their words.

    So long as Dr. Laura’s words are not obscene, they don’t incite fights, riots, or insurrections, and they make no false advertising claims, they are protected speech. But when Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market” (dissent in Abrams v. United States, 1919), he meant that the First Amendment guarantees a give and take of ideas, not a monologue. Those who don’t like what they hear on talk radio can call in to argue, but they are also free to make their views known to broadcasters and sponsors. Such responses are exercises of free speech, not its abridgment.

    Unfortunately, the Schlessinger-Palin axis sees such negative responses as violations of their First Amendment right to say whatever nonsense pops into their heads. Saying that the First Amendment applies to them, but not the rest of us, usurps the language of public discourse in the same way that conservatives have turned liberal, a positive term since the 14th century and a positive political term since it began being used in that context since the 18th, into a dirty word. It is a usurpation that has Republicans renaming the Democratic Party as the Democrat Party, because democratic is an adjective too closely associated with democracy, and that’s a term that Republicans don’t want their opponents to control. (It's o.k. for them to say Republican Party, though, since that term invokes the notion of republic, which is of course a good thing.) And it is a usurpation exemplified by the tweet that Sarah Palin sent out on August 18, just before she tweeted her defense of Dr. Laura:

         Who hijacked term:"feminist"?A cackle of rads who want 2 crucify other women w/whom they disagree on a singular issue; it's ironic (& passé)

    Who if not Sarah Palin hijacked the term feminist? Using language to mask rather than uncover is a political tactic decried by George Orwell in his 1947 essay “Politics and the English Language,” and it is lampooned by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass:

         ‘When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.'
         ‘The question is,' said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
         ‘The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that's all.'

    The masters don’t actually own language, no matter how hard they try. Language is the property of all its speakers, not just those in power, and it’s up to all those speakers not to ban discourse but to evaluate it in the marketplace of ideas. But although conservatives favor a free market economy (so long as big oil is protected), they draw the line at allowing a free market for language.

    Dr. Laura can go on insisting that the n-word is not insulting, and Sarah Palin can argue that feminists use the term feminist incorrectly. In the end, though, as Dr. Laura’s caller rightly complained, the n-word is primarily insulting when used by non-blacks, and as anyone with common sense or a good dictionary could tweet back to Sarah Palin, feminists are supporters of women’s rights, not hijackers of those rights. A broad interpretation of the First Amendment by Justice H. Dumpty (Regina ex rel Alice v. Mirror, 1871), says that words mean what the speaker or writer chooses. But the rest of us make meaning through the rough-and-tumble interactions of speakers and writers, hearers and readers. The meaning that results is multiple and changeable, not unitary and fixed. And it is what the First Amendment continues to protect.

joseph.1@osu.edu Aug 22, 2010 10:48 pm
It seems to me that something that is relevant here is the distinction from the philosophy of language regarding "use" versus "mention" (the former referring to utterances where a word is actually used to signify whatever it signifies, and the latter referring to utterances where a word is simply mentioned, that is the reference is to the word itself, not what it means). Dr. Laura was mentioning the word, not actually using it. It is true that the mere utterance of certain words, whether in use or in mention, can offend some people, which is why euphemistic terms like "N-word" or "F-bomb" are used. For discussion of a similar sort of case involving popular entertainment, in this case a TV show, see http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004086.html.

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