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Racism & Free Speech

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The State of Michigan recently passed legislation prohibiting racial and ethnic harassment which civil libertarians have criticized as an unconstitutional infringement upon freedom of expression. The f irst defendants to be charged under the new law were a group of white skinhead youths who heckled and instigated a fight with an interracial couple on Detroit's east side. In addition, the ACLU has recently filed suit against the U-M charging that its policy against racial harassment (which includes punitive measures for racist slurs and threats) is unconstitutional and denies free expression. Mostprogressive Black people.myselfincluded, are relucían t to place increased power in the hands of the pólice and court system, both of which have been, on the whole, notoriously racist in their treatment of people of color. At the same time however, the courts have been an important battleground to push for certain critical reforms and at other junctures, an arena in which to exposé the contradictions and inequalities within the larger social system. The new Michigan legislation, coupled with new regulations on many college campuses explicitly prohibiting racist "expression," has resurrected a very useful but heated debate about racism and free speech. I would like to enter the debate by reframing it. The debate, for me, is not about so-called free speech because in my experience speech has never been free, and racism has always been quite costly . Moreover, speech cannot be examrned in a social or historical vacuüm. What is speech but ano'Jier form of behavior? And just like with other behavior, the perpetrator must take responsibility for the consequences of his or her actions. It always seems a bit ironie and dishonest to me when those who worship at the altar of the first amendment argue that by not tolerating racist behavior (including speech) we are somehow setting a dangerous precedent which will jeopardize the immense freedoms we now enjoy, and lead to restrictions on speech for everyone. Speech is not and has never been "free." As the saying goes the press is free for those who own one. Everyone does not have an equal opportunity to express their ideas to a wide audience. It is ironie that there was such an upsurge of support for one writer, Salman Rushdie, when thousands of progressive writers and artists in this country and around the world are silenced daily by monopolistic publishing houses, newspapers, and recording companies that refuse to give them a platform, and never have to justify it to anyone. And the McCarthy era witch hunts were only an extreme ex ampie of the persecution that intellectuals continue to experience on an ongoing but less overt basis. They are often silenced and excluded from university departments because their work is deemed "too political," "not scholarly enough," and "biased." Of course, civil libertarians are screaming that we all have the right to free speech. But I' m sorry, for me, being given an abstract "right" is meaningless until you give me access to the means of exercising that right. Anyone is free to live in Grosse Pointe, right? The only problem is nothing in Grosse Pointe is free or even affordable if you don't happen to be rich. We don't all have an equal capacity to express and disseminate our ideas any more than we all have an equal ability to purchase property in Grosse Pointe. Even if we overlook the gross contradiction between our legal rights and our actual rights, there is still a problem. As f ar as I can see there are already numerous legal precedents that curtail free expression. Slander and libel are against the law, yet they are behaviors that constitute speech, oral or written. If you say something damaging, hurtful, offensive and untrue about another person you can be sued in a court of law in this country. Racist epithets, ing, threats, etc., in my opinión clearly fall in this category. If Carol Bumett can sue the National Enquirer for the emotional damage she experienced when they wTongly accused her of being drunk in public, I really don't see how the courts can minimize the actions of someone who, in the midst of rising racist attacks nationwide, distributes fliers calling for the shooting, maiming and lynching of Black people. (The Ella Baker-Nelson Mándela Center at U-M received a flier to this effect in February.) The po int is the law already holds us accountable for things we say and write. Perjury, slander, treason, conspiracy, plagiarism, inciting to riot, assault (not battery), are all criminal actions that can conceivably be committed simply by saying something that has negative, destructive consequences. All of these crimes acknowledge that speech is a type of behavior and like other forms of behavior is at times restricted when it infringes upon the rights of others. In each of those cases theTe is a very specif ie rationale behind why certain speech is prohibí ted; it would place others in undue (langer, it f alsely represents the truth, it intimídales or threatens the security of others, etc. All of these can be said about what is often identified as racist expression as well. The problem is that in a racist society, while there is consensus that there should be laws to protect individual reputations and national security, there is no such consensus around society's responsibility to protect the rights and interests of people of color. Finally, racist expression is not free at all. It's just that those who pay for it are not the perpe trators, but the victims. Racist fliers, posters and speeches créate a climate of fear for Blacks in communities and on campuses and in effect restrict our personal freedom and physical mobility enormously. We are told, and reminded by incidents like Howard Beach, that it is unsafe for Black people to go out in certain areas at certain times and we should behave accordingly. It deates a climate in which targeting and scapegoating people of color for society's ills becomes socially acceptable and unfortunately often translates into concrete actions by individuals who intemalize those messages and act upon them. And just as a young soldier who delivers secrets to "the enemy" is only offering information, he is likely to be jailed, not for what he did with that information, but for what he knew the recipients were likely to do with it. If one puts out literature that urges others to go out and lynch people of color, giving them all the reasons why and making light of the consequences if they do and several weeks later, inspired and urged on by that message, someone commits racist violence, inescapably there is some cause and effect. Some recent victims of racist violence include: a young Black man lynched in Central Park in 1986; Debra Haynes, ayoung Black Detroit woman carved up and mutilated in 1988, and Vincent Chen, a Detroit Asian AmeTican man beaten to death with a baseball bat in 1982. For the most part these incidents cannot be attributed to a specific piece of racist literature or speech. This is also not to say that those who simply proclaim "Death to Blacks, Jews and Gays," are as guilty as those who carry out direct assaults, but neither can they be totally absolved when others respond to their urgings. Racist threats and intimidation are not a part of an open public debate about issues. On the contrary, the main purpose of intimidation is to stifle certain voices and créate a climate of fear. Racists do not have the right to inflict further pain or to urge others to commit crimes against people of color. Such crimes have been committed for too long with impunity. Racists should be held accountable for their actions just as plagiarists, conspirators, libelists, and perjurors are. THE DEBATE FOR ME IS NOT ABOUT SO-CALLED FREE SPEECH BECAUSE IN MY EXPERIENCE SPEECH HAS NEVER BEEN FREE, AND RACISM HAS ALWAYS BEEN QUITE COSTLY. BARBARA RANSBY