Condemn offensive speech, but don't try to prohibit it

The Baltimore Sun

Until his racist rant at a Los Angeles comedy club threw his faltering stand-up comedy career onto a bonfire of insanity, Michael Richards was best known to millions as The Guy Who Used to Play Kramer on Seinfeld, one of the most popular shows in TV history. Now he's known as the mixed-up weirdo who gave us something besides sports and the midterm elections to talk about over Thanksgiving dinners.

By now you know the story: A raging Mr. Richards was caught on video camera spewing the N-word and making obscene lynching references at some black hecklers in the audience.

When the remorseful Mr. Richards later apologized ("I'm very, very sorry") on CBS' The Late Show With David Letterman, even he seemed to disbelieve his denials of racism. "I'm not a racist, that's what so insane about this," he said in a rambling satellite interview. "And yet it is said. It comes through, it fires out of me, and even now in the passion that's here as I confront myself." His passive voice ("it is said") sounded as unconvincing as President Ronald Reagan's saying "mistakes were made" to disassociate himself from the Iran-contra fiasco. Mr. Richards sounded like a man trying desperately to disconnect himself from something that he, and only he, stands accountable for.

His apology to "Afro-Americans," a term I have not heard much since the 1960s, revealed a man oddly out of touch with cultural currents, especially for an aspiring stand-up comedian. Yet, if being out of touch on race were a crime, the world would not have enough jails to hold all of the offenders.

With that in mind, one hopes that Mr. Richards will not be alone in using this incident as a learning experience - although I am not expecting miracles. The progress we have made from the era of lynchings to the era of racial bridge-builders like Bill Cosby, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Oprah Winfrey, fools too many people into thinking our racial divide has been closed - until an ugly surprise like Mr. Richards' toxic tirade erupts.

Instead of helping us to learn, celebrities caught in such eruptions tend to do what Mr. Richards has done: They hire a spin doctor.

Mr. Richards hired Howard Rubinstein, a big-time crisis manager. Mr. Rubinstein, in turn, helped arrange apologetic phone calls by Mr. Richards to the go-to guys for big-time black rage, the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

Mr. Jackson has been talking to members of Congress about prohibiting the use of hate language in mass media, according to a news report. If so, let us hope those talks don't get far. It is easy to agree with Mr. Jackson that hate speech divides society and can lead to violence, but if we let Congress decide which speech is and isn't hateful, a lot of comedy clubs would be out of business.

And that's not all. Everything offends somebody. Imagine the repercussions for TV shows like BET's Comic View or HBO's Def Comedy Jam that feature black stand-up comedians. I've heard from readers, for example, who are offended when black comics on TV poke fun at whites, Hispanics or Asians in their audiences. From the black cultural point of view, such a good-natured call-out can defuse racial tensions. But to some white folks and others viewing at home, it's hate speech.

The same caution should greet the looming legal actions that the two black male targets of Mr. Richards' wrath might take. They've hired celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, the go-to woman for newsmakers with an actionable gripe. In a CNN appearance with her clients, Ms. Allred said they deserve compensation for the emotional pain they suffered. If so, I shudder to think where that could end.

Mr. Richards is living with his own punishment, properly condemned by the court of public opinion. Even his hip and edgy comrades in comedy are acknowledging that there still are lines of decency that none of us should cross.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

Trudy Rubin's column will return next week.

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