Academic journal article College Student Journal

Free Speech and Slurs: Rights vs. Respect

Academic journal article College Student Journal

Free Speech and Slurs: Rights vs. Respect

Article excerpt

Slurs, either spoken or printed, can be classified as expressions of derogation, because their use is a generalized, negative characterization or classification of groups without regard to individual uniqueness. The use of such slurs consequently can cause the target and the listener or reader (i.e., receiver) discomfort, unless the receiver has developed an ability to depersonalize such communication. Due to the potential of derogatory slurs to cause harm, some advocate the implementation of prior restrictions or subsequent sanctions to curb the use of slurs. To do so, however, poses a threat to America's most valued freedom: speech. In this examination of the derogatory aspect of slurs, the authors demonstrate that the guarantee of free speech in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is considered by the courts as so sacred that offensive speech, such as slurs, is protected in public use. Even so, college campuses cannot remain open forums of free expression if students are not sufficiently instructed to respect all cultures.

In a series of recent incidents on college campuses, a small number of students have demonstrated their cultural insensitivity by using racial slurs indiscriminately. Whether spoken or written, slurs can have damaging consequences, for the speaker or writer as well as for the listener or reader. When the owner of a professional sports team or a radio host uttered a racial slur, the reaction in the media was almost immediate, and the sanctions imposed on the speakers were severe enough to threaten their professional and social standing and/or employment. Even on the public college campus, long considered an open forum of free expression, students might need to be held to higher standards in their public utterances, as the members of some fraternities have discovered. Slurs certainly are not new to American ears. In the 1972 film, The Godfather, the movie mogul Wolz utters a string of slurs at Tom Hagan, the godfather's legal counselor, first assuming that Hagan was Italian. When Hagan tells him that he is Irish/German, Wolz spews another array of ethnic slurs. In 2007, Don Imus was fired by CBS for an on-air slur about the Rutgers women's basketball team.

An array of events over less than 2 years in which high-profile individuals have been punished for emitting slurs appears to be almost endless. Readers may recall the racist statements by Paula Deen that were leaked online in 2013, which subsequently sidelined her career to a certain extent. The media storm over NBA Clippers owner Donald Sterling's racial comment preceded his forfeiture of the team's ownership. Still, some lesser-sensationalized examples are also worth mentioning. In June of 2014, four incidents were noted by the press: singer Justin Bieber asked forgiveness for a racial slur he had spoken years before when a video of the incident became public; Miss Universe Thailand felt compelled to relinquish her crown for a political slur on her Facebook page; actor Jonah Hill apologized in the public media for shouting a homophobic slur at a photographer; and calling the display of a Palestinian flag by a spectator a "racial slur," officials at a Houston soccer match between Honduras and Israel attempted to confiscate the flag. National Football League executives confirmed what may be the most sweeping employment-related threat of punishment for using racial slurs in their April 2014 meeting. Suggesting that players who utter such slurs on the field be penalized 15 yards, the executives encouraged officials at the games to apply the league's existing rules about language accordingly.

As noted above, college campuses have been the scenes of numerous incidents resulting from the use of slurs. In spring 2015, a group of University of Oklahoma fraternity members on their way to a spring formal launched into a song that contained racist slurs. Their performance was recorded and published on the Web, leading to the expulsion of two students who led the chant and to the university severing relations with the national fraternity. …

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