April 20, 2016

454 words

Offense of the Month, April 2016

Richard Emery, chairman of New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, which oversees actions of the police department, stepped down (“resigned abruptly,” as the New York Times labeled the move) on April 13, a day after the board’s executive director sued him for gender bias, specifically for uttering a misogynistic phrase.

The squeamish Times did not report the language, but the more colorful New York Post trumpeted the line cited in the lawsuit: “I don’t know why everyone is acting like a bunch of pussies.” (The New York Daily News managed to point to the offensive word, rendering it as “p—y.”)

Executive director Mina Malik claimed Emery’s plaintive cry was aimed at her and a female staff attorney in a conference call last September, during a heated discussion about disciplining two police officers for punching a man on a gurney. Emery insisted that the line had nothing to do with the women; it was, rather, aimed at police department officials who were on the call. That seems the logical explanation. And one wonders what would have happened had he had the discernment to call the department folks “dick heads.” But the entire brouhaha is an example of taking someone down for what he’s said rather than for what he’s done.

The paradigm example is from Zechariah Chafee’s great book Free Speech in the United States. Remarking on a Montana sedition law from World War I, Chafee wrote: “Montana imposed a penalty of twenty years in prison for various insults to the Constitution, the uniform, and the flag, which were considered too trivial to be federal crimes, until Congress in 1918 inserted the whole Montana law into the middle of the Espionage Act. Nothing could show better the way state war legislation works than the fate of Starr of Montana, as described by a United States judge. ‘He was in the hands of one of those too common mobs, bent upon vindicating its peculiar standard of patriotism and its odd concept of respect for the flag by compelling him to kiss the latter. In the excitement of resisting their efforts, Starr said: “What is this thing anyway? Nothing but a piece of cotton with a little paint on it and some other marks in the corner there. I will not kiss that thing. It might be covered with microbes.” The state authorities did nothing to the mob, but they had Starr convicted under the Montana Sedition Act for using language “calculated to bring the flag into contempt and disrepute,” and sentenced him to the penitentiary for not less than ten nor more than twenty years at hard labor.’” Those Montana boys were no pussies.

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