By: Dontré L. Conerly
As a journalist, social activist, and all-around big mouth, I am for Freedom of Speech–believe me! However, I have been conflicted of late as to whether or not there should be controls on it, given its sometimes-hateful nature and ability to incite anger. Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly immediately come to mind when I think of the controls that should be placed on what someone says or prints in the public sphere. I can recall Coulter making the assertion that former President Clinton is gay; and on a different occasion, alleging that wives of men who died in the World Trade Center were simply lining their pockets from the media attention they sought. Both inciteful statements. O’Reilly, with his interminable flow of stupidity, walked into my community (a mere four blocks from my house) and was surprised to find the world-famous Sylvia’s restaurant was “just like any other,” despite the fact that it is black-owned and operated.
Now, there are those who think that anything someone feels–whether it’s true or not–is free to be released into the public, and that it’s the responsibility of the interlocutor to accept it or not, or to be angered. Not only do I not subscribe to that, I think it unfairly targets the audience and makes them responsible for someone else’s stupidity. The obvious question here is: how do you control or limit Freedom of Speech? As offense is relative to each individual, it’s hard to gauge whether or not something is in bad taste. So, what are we to do?
Surely, we can’t do focus groups and random sample surveys every time we have an inkling that something is controversial; but, I think that a good set of friends and/or a nice call to a respected elder would help clear this up. At least, it does for me.
Today, the New York Post–a rag that I hardly consider a newspaper–ran a cartoon drawing of two cops having shot a chimp. Obviously playing on the recent news story of a chimp that mauled a woman and was shot after attempting to attack an officer in his cruiser, the drawing goes into the obscene (and wholly unacceptable) when a text bubble from the shooting officer reads: “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” Undoubtedly, the officer (and the artist) is referring to President Obama, our African American president who won the fight on Capitol Hill to have his stimulus bill passed.
Given the injustices that this man’s predecessors and community had to overcome–including being likened as monkeys and being called as such–not only is this drawing offensive and obscene, it should never have made it to print. I won’t delude myself into thinking that intelligent people (and again, this is questionable . . .he draws for the New York Post) “should know better,” as my great-grandmother used to castigate us when we did something that was blatantly stupid, but I do think that someone in his friend group, or one of his editorial superiors should have recognized that not only would this offend Mr. Obama’s supporters, it would offend the black community. Clearly, no one at this paper or in association with Sean Delonas who saw this cartoon has any scruples about offending that community or the President of the United States.
This type of “press” is what bothers me about the broad freedom that is given by our Constitution. Yes, we can argue that limits are arbitrary and the no one person should tell another what to say and how to say it, but just as drawings of religious deities in socially controversial situations angers their followers and slinging feces at the Virgin Mary angers her followers, there is a line of tact that should be drawn in the sand of everyone’s character that reveals these types of paintings, drawings, and “art” as offensive and inappropriate.
I won’t buy any excuse given by the artist, as any adult should not only be aware of the treatment of black Americans in this country (it is AMERICAN history, after all!), but anyone likening the President to a monkey should think twice about what message he is sending; especially when that President is black.