Issue 104, Spring 2007

Views on the News: the Imus Affair

Don Imus created a giant headache for free speech advocates. Of course he’s entitled to say what he wants. And his employers also have the right to fire him for it. The heavy hand of government was not involved. So why are so many First Amendment advocates uneasy?

The principle of free speech encourages us to openly discuss and even denounce offensive speech. But our antennae go up when mob mentality takes over. The media and public reaction was a perfect storm of outrage, and dissent was virtually nonexistent. A few observers noted that, in addition to being an equal-opportunity offender, Imus always featured meaningful political and literary content on his show – but they were drowned out. When a book is challenged because of specific language or passages, we always insist that it be considered as a whole. Should we not do the same with a talk show?

Imus’ words, though intentionally offensive, were a clumsy and ineffectual attempt at politically incorrect humor. After all, as many pointed out, rap music deploys that language all the time. But Imus is no 20-something rapper, and the “joke” fell flat. Not only wasn’t it funny, it sounded gratuitously mean.

Hip hop artists may use the same words but they normally do so within the context of a complex set of cultural understandings and arrangements, in which the words can be offensive, satirical, self-mocking, or descriptive. Imus, an interloper, badly miscalculated in trying to imitate their language. Even though his franchise is in pushing limits, this time he picked the wrong target: a championship women’s college basketball team with a Cinderella story, certainly not the fair-game celebrities and politicians he typically taunted.

While no one wants to defend Imus’ words, there’s another reason why the public response should make First Amendment advocates uneasy: the ever-shrinking limits on what can be said on the public airwaves. Catholic groups object to content that they find offensive on the basis of religion. Jewish groups are highly sensitive about discussion of the Mideast. Feminists object to expression that they think disparages or objectifies women. Conservatives recently supported the removal of an outspoken antiwar figure on public radio.

Even though First Amendment rights are not at issue, there are important reasons for concern over the Imus affair. The net result of accommodating the desire not to offend is that the sphere of public debate and discussion is reduced. Promoting uninhibited dialogue is at least as important a social goal as promoting civility, and it is distinctly more valuable than promoting orthodoxy.
— Joan E. Bertin, Esq.