Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Not-so-funny Joke

By now, almost everyone has heard about Michael Richards' racist outburst while performing at the Laugh Factory this last weekend. In case you missed it, you can find the full video here (very not safe for work and disturbing). Last night, Richards apologized on David Letterman's show in an attempt to rectify the situation. The Laugh Factory has issued their official statement on the issue as well. Regardless of the negative adjectives that can easily be ascribed to this event, it raises an interesting social and legal issue. At the Laugh Factory's press conference on the incident, Paul Rodriguez stated that though the comedy club does not condone this kind of malicious language, they will not institute a policy prohibiting the use of racist words.

As far as the First Amendment is concerned, no speech with social or political value should be proscribed. The key is value. No one can argue that Mr. Richards' words carried value in the sense that ideals of free speech is meant to protect. Few people would argue that comedy, in the American tradition, serves as commentary. For those who think otherwise, consider the premise of the Daily Show on Comedy Central. Though questionable in content, comedic acts like George Carlin's Dirty Words monologue offer commentary on aspects of American life. This kind of comedy, even if dealing with language insulting language, should not be limited provided it has a productive goal. In situations where the language is used solely to insult or degrade another, the speech has no value and should not be respected or protected by the law. There is no question that in this situation, Mr. Richards' language was meant to insult and degrade the object of his anger and should not be tolerated. However, this incident should not keep society from engaging in a productive discourse on language and racism.

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