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Does Free Speech Include ‘Fag’?

At the Village Vanguard, Lenny Bruce would look long and hard at his integrated audience. “Any kikes here tonight?” he’d ask. “Any niggers? Any spics? Any fags?”

The audience would freeze. What’s gotten into Lenny? Has a dybbuk taken possession of him? Or is this the real Lenny we never knew?

As the muttering mounted, Lenny would put up his hand. “Why do those words disturb you so much?” he’d say. “Why don’t you start searching beneath those words so they won’t have such wounding, such paralyzing power over you? Who says those words and why? And should that language be suppressed or brought out into the open so that we can know where it comes from?”

Lenny always wanted to take the covers off, especially the taboos of language.

Lenny got busted for taking the covers off so often that he became a scholar of First Amendment law. I’d go to see him at the Marlton Hotel on 8th Street, and all over the floor and chairs were transcripts of his trials and books on the law.

I thought of Lenny when a police chaplain, the Reverend William G. Kalaidjian, was forced to retire (that is, fired) after 42 years on the job. His record all those years consisted of being available at any hour for officers who needed help. And there is no evidence that he ever asked about their color or sexual preference before he went out to them.

In fact, his only known offense was saying the word “fag.” On April 30, Kalaidjian was presenting an award to Sergeant Thomas Kennedy at a banquet in the Bronx. Kennedy had been acquitted of beating a handcuffed car-theft suspect and then slamming him face down on the sidewalk, breaking his teeth. Prosecuting Kennedy had been Assistant D.A. Thomas Hickey.

Presenting the award to Sergeant Kennedy, Kalaidjian called Hickey ”a bum prosecutor” and a “fag.” It may well be that since Kennedy was acquitted of brutalizing a man in handcuffs, Hickey was indeed, in that case, “a bum prosecutor.” Calling him a “fag,” however, was both irrelevant and plainly bigoted. But is there justice in firing Kalaidjian after 42 years of service?

The reaction of the city’s distinguished leaders was sadly predictable. Neither the mayor nor Howard Safir, the hollow police commissioner, would admit that the chaplain had been forced to retire. They implied that he had voluntarily resigned.

Safir said: “I have a problem with anybody who uses any racial, ethnic, or sexual-preference derogatory comments.” If only he also had a problem with persistent, vicious police brutality in the city.

And the Manhattan district attorney, Robert Morgenthau, intoned, “It is reprehensible that anyone, especially a chaplain, would make comments of that nature.”

Why “especially a chaplain”? It’s much more harmful when a cop calls you a fag or a nigger while he’s banging you over the head with a police radio. You can’t answer the cop because then he might do a Louima on you.

I was somewhat surprised that there wasn’t a word on behalf of the chaplain’s keeping his job from noted free-speech paladins in New York. Not a word from law professors or columnists, except Steve Dunleavy of the Post, who has not been known previously as a fan of justices William Brennan and Louis Brandeis.

Why the silence? Did the usual champions of free speech think that a chaplain is less deserving of free speech, however offensive, than Leonard Jeffries? Were they afraid of being called homophobes if they came forth and defended Kalaidjian’s right to say “fag” while they disassociated themselves from the word?

After all, I have defended Professor Jeffries’s right to make his anti-Semitic speeches although I find them disgusting. Interestingly, I did a long radio interview with Jeffries two years ago in which he detailed his fight to hold the chair of his department at City University while doing extended battle in the courts.

A lot of people wanted to silence Jeffries. At the end of the interview, I asked him what he’d learned from his efforts to speak in the face of unremitting opposition.

“I have learned,” he told me, “a great appreciation for the First Amendment.”

And at the start of his speech at the Million Man March, Louis Farrakhan said that many people did not want him to speak there or anywhere, but thanks to the First Amendment, they couldn’t stop him.

A sidebar on the abandonment of chaplain Kalaidjian’s right to speak: On May 6, The New York Times ran a long article on the antigay slur that erased 42 years of Kalaidjian’s work–and his job. Nowhere in that article was the fateful slur actually identified as “fag.” The Times‘s readers can only stand so much reality.

The defenestration of Kalaidjian has been a victory for Sergeant Edward Rodriguez, president of the Gay Officers Action League. He drove the campaign to remove the chaplain. Lenny Bruce was lucky Rodriguez wasn’t the power in Lenny’s times.

So will this lesson to Kalaidjian deter future bigots? If they’re in the public eye, it probably will. But it won’t change their resentment and ignorance, because nothing has been done to change them. Instead of calling for Kalaidjian’s head, Sergeant Rodriguez could have asked that he be ordered to spend a week or more with members of the Gay Officers Action League so that real faces could displace his stereotypes.

When this story broke, Norman Siegel, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, was out of town, and the NYCLU and the ACLU remained silent. Siegel says if he’d been here, he would have recommended that the chaplain be disciplined–but not fired–if he’d used the slur at an official function. If it was not an official function, Siegel would have argued that Kalaidjian could say whatever he wanted, without punishment, just like Leonard Jeffries.

Louis Brandeis used to say that speech should not be suppressed unless the actual harm it may cause is so imminent that there is no “opportunity for full discussion” of the offensive speech. But if “there be time to expose through discussion the falsehoods and avert the evil [of the speech] by education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” (Emphasis added.)

If only Howard Safir could rise above his mediocrity to comprehend Justice Brandeis’s command of the First Amendment.

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Setting Fire to Offensive Ideas

Last spring the Cornell Review, a conservative student publication, published a parody–a description, in ebonics, of courses that might be taught in Cornell’s Africana Studies and Resource Center.

An excerpt from a prospective course, “Racism in American Society”: “Da white man be evil an he tryin to keep da brotherman down. We’s got Sharpton an Farakhan, so who da white man now, white boy?…We ain’t gots to axe da white man for nothin in dis class.”

Obviously the parody was intended to offend and insult. And indeed, I would call it racist, as did many black students at Cornell. The authors of the parody deny it was intended to be racist. But Rosa Clemente, a first-year graduate student, spoke for many of the angry targets of the parody: “I’m tired of asking for my humanity.”

At a protest rally, a shouting chorus also expressed the indignation of some of the black students: “The Review! The Review! The Review is on fire! We don’t need no water, let the motherfucker burn!”

By then, issues of the Cornell Review were actually on fire. Students infuriated by the parody had snatched about 200 copies and, at the rally, burned some in a trash basket.

When Ying Ma, a former president of the Cornell Review, tried to speak at the protesters’ rally, she was forcibly prevented. People associated with the Cornell Review had no right to speak. To emphasize the point, some of the demonstators tossed the basket of the burning Cornell Reviews in the direction of Ying Ma’s face.

To bring the war against offensive speech outside the immediate campus, about 200 Cornell students blocked access to a key intersection, thereby stopping traffic from 4:30 to 9 p.m.

While the destruction of the newspapers was going on, not a single faculty member, including in the law school–so far as I can find out–told the arsonists that the way to answer bad and hateful speech is with more speech–not with a match.

A similar caricature in a George Mason University fraternity skit angered black students there–but when the case went to court, the fraternity was not held liable for breaking any civil rights or defamation law. Said Virginia federal district judge Claude Hilton: “The First Amendment does not recognize exceptions for bigotry, racism and religious intolerance, or ideas or matters some may deem trivial, vulgar or profane.” (Emphasis added.)

Cornell, being a private university, is not covered by the First Amendment. But until recent years, Cornell has been a school with a commitment to free exchange of all kinds of ideas–in the spirit of the First Amendment.

When I lectured there years ago, I enjoyed both the students’ robust dissents and their willingness to at least consider hitherto unthinkable ideas. More recently, however, I found the campus had stiffened into racial camps, due in part to the administration having yielded to demands for theme housing–blacks in one place, Hispanics in another, Native Americans in yet another.

This self-segregation also continues outside the separate residences, solidifying the tribalism. Before I left the campus the last time, I was going through a newspaper published by some black students. From boyhood on, I read a lot of anti-Semitic materials, but this was the most vicious, historically ignorant attack on all Jews, from time immemorial, that I have ever seen. It went beyond anything even Farrakhan has said.

Of course, that hatred of Jews should not have been censored. It’s important to know who the anti-Semites are and what they’re saying. I’ve read other demonizing articles about Jews in black publications at UCLA, Michigan State, and other colleges where the administrations have done nothing to open up real, continuing dialogue between the tribes. (White students can also be tribal.)

* By and large, college presidents and deans–especially at prestigious schools–are afraid to do or say anything that might subject them to being called racist. And so they do not, for the most part, penalize such actions by black students as stealing and burning newspapers.

* For further example, there was the theft at the University of Pennsylvania of 14,000 (!) copies of the mainstream college paper, The Daily Pennsylvanian. The paper had published a columnist who black students said was racist. So those students violated the free-press rights of the paper to publish as well as the right of its readers to read it.

* The then president of the university, Sheldon Hackney, did nothing to even reprimand the student thieves because, he said, there was an equal conflict between diversity on campus and the newspaper’s right to open expression.

So, free expression of ideas, once central to a university, became far less a priority than pandering to black students on campus.

As I wrote in the Voice, “To reach the utterly shallow notion that diversity and open expression are in chronic conflict is to set up yet another prejudicial stereotype of blacks and Latinos. These black students–so the reasoning goes–cannot be expected to take full responsibility for their actions.”

Because they are black, the rationale goes, they do not have the self-control to rebut the offending articles with writing and speech of their own.

What Sheldon Hackney did was to say that black students can’t be penalized for acting against their “nature.” Now that is racism!

One person was punished after the theft of 14,000 papers. He was a guard at the university museum. His crime: he tried to stop a band of students, their hands full of stolen newspapers, from running away. He was charged with “overreaction.”

Nearly everybody in the law faculty at the University of Pennsylvania criticized the president for his cowardice: “This was a violation of freedom of thought and freedom of dissent and freedom of discussion, silencing those with whom they disagree….This is a direct denial of the university’s basic mission.”

Next week: My interview with the dean of students at Cornell and a soft-shoe dance by that university’s president. Also: feminist vigilantes on campus.