An Analysis of the Importance of the Freedom of Speech in The Meaning of a Word by Gloria Naylor and On Racist Speech by Charles R. Lawrence III

Freedom of Speech is central to our founding country’s doctrine of personal freedom for all. However, there are many exceptions to the guarantee of free speech. For example, false advertising, slanderous and libelous and speech to intentionally incite violence are not protected. In “The Meaning of a Word” by Gloria Naylor, Naylor defines the N-word and its usage colloquially but more importantly she gives a story of her first experience having it used against her. Through her passage, Naylor shows that the N word is more than just a word and that it has a lasting and harmful impact. In the essay, “On Racist Speech” by Charles R Lawrence III, Lawrence makes an argument for why the laws against hate speech need to be modified to give more consideration to racialized hate speech. Lawrence argues that racially motivated is damaging in any form and that including racist speech as covered by Freedom of Speech is destructive to the principle of free speech. Using these two pieces together it becomes clear that racially charged slurs such as the N-words should not be covered under free speech because when uttered by the wrong person at the wrong time can only be offensive and harmful.

In an effort to differentiate hate speech from ignorance, the speaker’s intention is often examined. However, with racially charged words such as the N-word intention does not matter. The N-word uttered by any non-black person is unacceptable. Lawrence fleshes out the legality of hate speech and according to him by definition, “Words, which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” (Lawrence) are not protected. This protects people in the case of violent and angry face to-face confrontation that are clearly racially motivated. However, more subtle and calm acts of racism that do not fit into this clause are not covered under the exception and ore therefore protected. If you inspect Naylor’s story you can see that racist words in themselves are harmful even when they are not backed by knowledge or intention.

When she was in the 3rd grade she first heard the n-word, a boy who had received a low grade on his test was angry that she did better than him and Naylor recounts the experience, saying “I remarked that once again he had received a much lower mark than I did. He snatched his test from me and spit out that word. Had he called me a nymphomaniac or a necrophiliac, I couldn’t have been more puzzled. I didn’t know what a nigger was, but I knew that whatever it meant, it was something he shouldn’t have called me” (Naylor 1).

Although at their young ages neither Naylor nor the other boy was likely to have any idea of the history and offensiveness and humiliation that word embodies, Naylor was instantly able to identify that it is not a word that he should be calling her. Differentiating intention is not how hate speech should be handled because the speaker’s intention does not matter in situations of hate speech. The speaker can offend, harm or anger the listener whether they intend to or not especially because in the case of racialized hate speech the speaker often does not understand what it feels like to have a derogatory term such as the n- word used against them.

Under the doctrine of freedom of speech violence inciting speech is not protected except in cases when it is avoidable. However for people in subjugated groups, especially black people, such hate speak can not always be avoided and should not have to. After being called the N-word by her classmate Naylor writes about her reacted. Naylor unsure of what to do first asked her teacher and then asked her mom about the word. Naylor says, I was later to go home and ask the inevitable question that every black parent must face— “Mommy, what does nigger mean?””(Naylor 1) And continues by adding, “That was the word I went home and asked my mother about. And since she knew that I had to grow up in America, she took me in her lap and explained” (Naylor 3). Naylor makes it clear that as a black child her mom knew that the conversation about racism was bound to come up because for a black person in America facing racism is an unavoidable truth.

A law that only protects from hate speech that the victim cannot get away from ignores the reality that racism is anywhere and that black people should not have to avoid it whenever they come. Lawrence discusses how this exception to the protection is problematic in isolated areas such as college campuses. Lawrence argues, “Minority students should not be required to remain in their rooms in order to avoid racial assault” (Lawrence 62). Lawrence believes this exception is unjust because it implies that black students have to flee every time slurs are thrown at them and they feel uncomfortable. Racial slurs and hate speech are not things that are completely avoidable. Racism shows up economically, socially and mentally and can be used to target black people both systematically and interpersonally. Minority people should be able to go around without worrying about harassment and when they are faced with harassment based on race they should have legal recourse as they would in situations of harassment of other types.

Hate speech should not be allowed is that is can have a lasting effect on its victim, the way the victim perceives themselves or the victims perception of the slur itself. In Naylor’s essay, she recounted her first time having the N-word used against her several years before she wrote the essay. Even though so many years had passed she could still vividly remember her first encounter of a white man using the word against her. She goes on to write about other times hearing the word from other black people and how that particular time was different explaining, “So there must have been dozens of times that nigger was spoken in front of me before I reached the third grade. But I didn’t “hear” it until it was said by a small pair of lips that had already learned it could be a way to humiliate me” (Naylor 3).

Naylor explains that because a non-black person said it in order to insult and demean her it elicited a completely different response from her. Naylor had heard the N word used colloquially by black people several times before her 3rd grade experience but never paid it much mind until it was used as a slur against her. Lawrence discusses the lasting effect of hate speech by citing the pre- ideology of “Separate But Equal” as an example of hate speech. Lawrence says, “segregated schools were inherently unequal because of the message that segregation conveyed – that black children were an untouchable caste, unfit to go to school with white children” (Lawrence 62). Lawrence argues that hate speech has been present in legislation and through the law has had strong negative effects on the self esteem and self-worth of black people and for that reason should be unconstitutional. The hate filled legislation affected more than just the education on those the law affected it also affected their self-esteem. Both in interpersonal and legal situation hate speech amounts to much more than words, hate speech can create lasting negative psychological effects on those targeted by it.

Whether it creates strong painful memories or has an extreme impact on the victim’s future it leaves its mark on the person’s life. Hate speech is a horrible problem we face in this country. Although our Bill of Rights protects our freedom of speech among other things it needs to take a firm stance against the n-words and against hate speech of all kinds. Having slurs used against you is more than just being called names; it is a very painful, humiliating and can create effects that the victim must carry with them. Not all speech deserves protection under the law, but all people do. Racialized hate speech such as the N-word and other such slurs so not deserve protection under the law because protecting them is enabling people who use them to continue to cause harm and leave the victims with no recourse.

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