Fining for language use

Brazoria (just south of Houston) is thinking about fining people $500 for using the N-word in a derogatory way. This is a twist on Geoff Pullum’s discussion of bans about a month ago, since they are not banning the use of the word outright. Rather, it’s linked to “using the word “in an offensive or aggressive manner”. In phrasing the law in this way, Ken Corley (unlike, for example, blogger Laura) has realised that the usage of the N-word is very complex and its level of offesniveness depends to a great extent on its context.

This legislation would seem to me to be an extension to the legislation involving hate-speech. That is, it’s not illegal to say that women are stupid. But it is illegal to use such an idea as the basis for an action (e.g. not to hire female academics because of a belief that women are stupid). In the US hate-speech is not illegal per se, although there are different rules when it is used in conjunction with a hate crime.

It’s an interesting piece of legislation. Impossible to enforce, of course, and exclusive (after all, there are many ways of being offensive). It also gives the lie to “sticks and stone may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. Just as throwing a stone at someone is not a neutral action, calling someone  by the N-word is not a neutral speech act either.

Stay tuned for whether the by-law passes.


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