John Smallwood: Racial slurs wrong but not criminal

Posted: January 19, 2012

 STICKS AND STONES may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

 Well, actually, that's not true.

Specific words uttered in a specific context can inflict as much pain to the psyche as a blow to the stomach or nose.

Although some words have higher profiles than others, anything uttered with the intent to demean or insult because of race, ethnic origin, religion, sexual orientation or any number of cultural differences can inflict severe emotional pain.

The N-word has been deemed so bad that we've resorted to calling it the N-word. But if done with the same intent to insult, is calling a white person a "redneck" really any different?

While I believe that certain words, especially those that are used to promote prejudice, can hurt, does that make the use of them criminal?

In a couple of weeks, a fascinating study in the fight against racism will begin when Chelsea and England national-team captain John Terry is scheduled to appear at West London Magistrates' Court on charges that he committed a "racially aggravated public order offense."

Terry has been accused of directing "racially abusive" words toward Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand, who is black, near the end of a Premier League match on Oct. 23.

Videotape shows Terry twice yelling obscenities and the word "black" at Ferdinand.

That was enough for prosecutors to charge Terry with a crime that carries a possible fine of $4,000.

Terry did not deny saying the words during a verbal clash with Ferdinand, but he said the words have been taken out of context.

"I have never aimed a racist remark at anyone and count people from all races and creeds among my closest friends," Terry said.

Living in a nation with the First Amendment that allows people to hurl all kinds of insults without fear of penalty from the government, I find myself wondering if Great Britain knows something that we do not.

Just the other day, a man in Scotland was charged with "racially aggravated harassment," for sending racial insults via Twitter to Glasgow Rangers midfielder Maurice Edu, who is African American.

I knew that racism in English football was considered a damaging blight that had to be eliminated, especially as more foreign players - particularly those from African nations - became desired acquisitions.

But it never occurred to me that "racial insults" could actually be prosecuted as a crime.

Can you imagine how busy our court system would be if we had a law that made using racially abusive language a misdemeanor subject to fines? It sure would go a long way in helping solve our budget-deficit problem.

Still, as much as I abhor racism, I can't wrap myself around the idea that someone should be charged criminally for speaking or tweeting a racial slur.

I've been at the end of many racial insults in my lifetime, but no matter how angry I got, I never thought I should be able to call the police and have someone arrested.

Calling someone a bad name is not the same as burning a cross in someone's yard or violating someone's privacy by secretly videotaping them engaging in a homosexual relationship and then posting it on the Internet.

Yes, words can wound deeply, but making their use a crime is too slippery of a slope and invites too much potential for abuse and misuse.

I'm not saying Terry or anybody else should not be held accountable for their words, I just don't think the criminal-justice system is the answer.

I prefer what happened in the case of Liverpool striker Luis Suarez, who received an eight-match ban and a $62,000 fine from England's Football Association when he was found guilty of abusing Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, a black player from France.

The FA is a private company. It has every right to punish employees who do things that are considered damaging to its product.

Many people mistakenly believe that freedom of speech means freedom from the consequences of that speech. It does not. It is only a protection from government retribution.

Celebrities have had their careers damaged for making racially insensitive comments.

Politicians have been forced to resign. Corporations have lost profits because of boycotts. Ordinary people have been fired from their jobs.

Many people say that is just a bad result of "political correctness." I say it is fair game in the fight against racism.

If you chose to use discriminatory language, then you've opened yourself up to the penalties that arise from it.

It is the old, "yelling fire in a crowded theater" argument.

Terry will be held accountable for his actions.

He'll take a hit financially as companies will likely not want his name associated with their products.

He'll probably lose his captaincy of the English national team and possibly his roster spot for the 2012 European Championships.

But prosecuting Terry for a crime for simply hurling a racial insult is too dangerous a path to walk down.


Send email to

smallwj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

www.philly.com/Smallwood.

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