The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Wednesday, January 28, 2004

That old American speech thermometer heads slowly South

It is, right now, just -18F in International Falls, MN. Positively Amazonian compared to the temperature of speech in the US right now, to judge from the succession of bad-news cases [1].

Jeff Jacoby (who should can his photo byline stat, by the way) is talking about Omaha's Trevor Richards, the real African-American (last seen here on January 23); and about Jennifer Cundiff:
Back in February 2001, the Southwest Airlines flight attendant was trying to coax passengers boarding a flight from Las Vegas to Kansas City to find their seats quickly so the plane could take off. "Eenie meenie minie moe," she said over the intercom, "pick a seat, we gotta go."

Off went the klaxon, and the shakedown was on:
...two black passengers...Louise Sawyer and Grace Fuller, who are sisters, interpreted Cundiff's couplet as a racist insult and said they were sure it was intended to humiliate them. It was so upsetting, Fuller claimed, that it triggered a seizure and left her bedridden for days. Eventually the women sued, charging Southwest with violating their civil rights and inflicting physical and emotional distress.

(Was Jesse Jackson contacted? If so, did he participate in the shakedown? Did he enquire as to the standard of pulchritude of the plaintiffs?)

Cundiff, no doubt, showed a shocking lack of racial awareness. Eeny meeny is not for mixed company, surely. Except, according to Jacoby,
Unless you're old enough to remember flappers and speakeasies, you probably don't know that the words that originally followed "eenie, meenie, minie, moe" were "catch a nigger by the toe." Cundiff, who was 22, certainly didn't know. Like most of us, she grew up saying "catch a tiger by the toe" -- she had never heard the older, uglier version

Well, Prohibition [2] was long gone when my cord was cut, and there was only ever one version I heard. And tigers weren't in it.

The shakedown was on; and, it seems, US District Judge Kathryn Vratil blew out the motion for summary judgement. Just like as if it was Ally McBeal and entertainment justified nullification. The jury killed the shakedown - Hallelujah! But the defendants picked up their own tab, as I believe is usual.

Jacoby picks the essential, speech-chilling, point.

In a way, the shakedown artists may have done Jennifer Cundiff a favour: because the airline had been sued, it could hardly fire her. Not while the case was ongoing (one to watch, clearly).

But the word will clearly have gone out to cabin crew to cut out the improv, or else.

The most depressing thing about the speech-chilling business is the evident lack of fight in large swathes of those whose hard-won liberties are being eroded. And, in a lot of cases were free speech is under attack, the protection of the First Amendment is not relevant (because the speech-chilling is not being done by a public body), and therefore only political pressure is available to defend speech rights.

All the more puzzling to one who comes from a country where the ultimate legal safeguard of free speech is this monstrosity (Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights):
Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. this right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information an ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or the rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

The guy [3] who drafted that must have had a Rummy smirk when he'd finished! It's the equivalent of the Civil Rights Act of 1957: a civil rights act without any civil rights in it [4].

  1. The stuff is anecdotal, and that's certainly a worry. Would good news on free speech actually be news as far as Big Media is concerned? My guess is yes, in many cases - a college that tore up its speech code, that welcomed affirmative action bake sales, that established robust rules to bar shakedowns like the one fictionalised in The Human Stain. Yep, I reckon those would make the papers. Or rather, the whining from the usual suspects would.

    But proper quantitative research is needed. Unless it's there and I haven't seen it. And how likely is that?

  2. Rivalling affirmative action as a piece of social engineering that seemed a good idea at the time.

  3. From memory, he was British! The ECHR was meant to be the UK's gift of constitutionality to the banana republics of the Continent that slipped into authoritarianism, Communism or worse at the drop of a hat. At a time when HMG assumed that Britain was not included in any political use of the word Europe. Although, as a member of the Council of Europe, the ECHR applied to the UK from the start (1950ish), I think British pols thought we were so self-evidently democratic that it wouldn't actually affect us.

    And never forget that the French had their last successful military coup in 1958.

  4. Well, perhaps a few. The Keith Finley thesis and Robert Caro's Master of the Senate have the story. It's the locus classicus for Senate legislative management. There's a Shakespearian (as well as soap-opera) quality about the thing: and, for a dyed-in-the-wool villain, Lyndon Johnson is well worthy of the Bard. And knocks fellow Texan JR Ewing into a cocked-hat.

This mildly interesting op-ed includes the information that Westside High School rebel-with-a-cause real African-American Trevor Richard's buddies in the postering caper were - 16-year-old twins Paul and Scott Rambo.

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