News and Tribune

July 5, 2013

NASH: The cost of free speech

Local columnist


This week we celebrate our Independence Day and many of the freedoms that we cherish. Over the last few weeks we have learned about some of those freedoms that we hold so dear. One of those freedoms, the freedom of speech, is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Some people believe that since we have freedom of speech, we can say whatever we want whenever we want. While the First Amendment does give us the right to say just about anything, it does not protect Americans from the consequences that result in what they say. In just the last couple of weeks we have seen this play out in the case of celebrity chef Paula Deen.

All of the drama began when Paula Deen gave a deposition in a discrimination lawsuit that was brought on by an employee of a restaurant that she owns that is run by her brother. One of the things that came to light was her admission to using the “N-word” in the past. I don’t have a problem with the fact that she admitted to using it at some point in her life but her subsequent explanation and apology is where the whole thing went off the rails.

The “everybody-has-said-it” defense doesn’t work for me because I know that everybody hasn’t said it. Maybe many people have said the word out loud but before they are vilified you would want to know the context. Just repeating the word isn’t necessarily offensive, but its use in jokes or as an epithet cannot be tolerated.

One of her explanations for using the offensive word was that she was old and  from the South. While this might have been part of the culture, it doesn’t make it right. In her first apology she seemed to believe that she should be given a pass because of how she was raised. Just because you were raised in a time when things like this may have been tolerated doesn’t justify the toleration today.

Using the word in the segregated South during the middle of the last century might have been acceptable to some, but it shouldn’t be used as an excuse. She admitted to using the word when she was working at a bank and was robbed by a black assailant. This reportedly happened in the 1980s. I believe that directing the word at a particular person when you are angry is an indicator of an underlying attitude of racism.

I learned early on that the word wasn’t one that should be used. In the infamous Saturday Night Live sketch where Chevy Chase is interviewing Richard Pryor for a job and he must administer a word-association test. The test administrator is to say a word and the person taking the test is suppose to think of the first thing that pops into their mind.

The whole thing starts out rather innocuously with simple words but it quickly escalates to words that have been used to offend African Americans over the years. As the words get worse and worse Richard Pryor becomes agitated trading insults that some have used to describe Caucasians. The last word that Chevy Chase says ends up being the “N-word,” to which Richard Pryor retorts “dead honky.”

Some people have come to her defense saying that the word is used by African-American comedians or musicians all the time. I have heard statements like, “Walmart fired Paula Deen but they continue to sell RAP albums.”  I don’t think these two things have anything to do with one another and the statement is rather asinine.

Paula Deen’s vast empire crumbled seemingly overnight. I didn’t fully understand how far her brand went until I started hearing about the companies that would no longer being doing business with her. Locally, the Horseshoe Casino put out a statement that they would monitor the situation closely, and the next day announced that they would be dropping her name from their popular buffet. 

Where I work we got an email that came down from the corporate office that said pull some product that we had just received. The corn chips with her likeness had not even made it to the sales floor before we were told we could not sell them. Personally I believe this was going a little too far. I think we should have offered the chips, not made a big deal about promoting them and let the public decide whether they were a good product or not.

Other celebrities have fallen and been able to recover from things like this, although I do not recall anyone ever falling this far and this fast.  Time will tell whether her loyal fans will stick behind her and support her. If people continue to buy the merchandise that she is selling, eventually retailers will give her another chance, too. Right or wrong corporations have a knack for forgiving people for bad behavior, if they know that there is money to be made.

— Matthew Nash can be reached at