The Word "Spearchucker" Raises Free Speech Questions In Cleveland

(CBS/AP)
"Does a black columnist have a right to use racially incendiary words that a white columnist does not?" asks the [Cleveland] Plain Dealer's Ted Diadiun. "Does a columnist's race give him the authority to be critical of black politicians or other prominent people in a way that a white columnist could not?"

Diadiun doesn't really have an answer, but he spent his Sunday column exploring the questions. What prompted the soul searching? A piece in his paper last week by Metro columnist Sam Fulwood saying that Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell is "not a friend to blacks." Diadiun writes that Fulwood also "belittled the black conservatives whom the GOP has enlisted to attract black voters, and ridiculed the notion that running a black candidate could lure black voters to the conservative cause" in his column.

But that's not the most incendiary stuff in there, not by a long shot. No, that honor belongs to this line, concerning former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell: "Powell flamed out after his ego no longer allowed him to be an unquestioning spearchucker in Mr. Bush's war."

Uh, spearchucker?

Fulwood defended the word, saying, "My deliberate use of provocative, incendiary - but not hurtful - language is to produce a reaction, to get people engaged, to cuss, to argue, to fuss with my ideas. If using that word made people mad, that's good."

But Diadiun saw it differently. "Many people do view that word as hurtful, and I would contend that the line gets drawn long before you start calling somebody a spearchucker in the newspaper," he wrote.

So who's right? Well, for what it's worth, I'm with Fulwood. Yes, some people might be hurt by the word spearchucker. But so what? If it was the word that Fulwood felt he needed to make his point, shouldn't he have a right to use it, our delicate sensibilities be damned?

When we censor our words in order to keep from offending people, we sacrifice our claims to have a real exchange of ideas. I don't agree with people who say "Bush is a Nazi." But if they want to say it – if it expresses their point – then they have a right to do so. That doesn't mean that I'd necessarily print it in my newspaper, however. The potential for offense isn't the issue; the quality of the ideas is.

Sometimes a stand in favor of free speech may have consequences. Certainly, the potential for reciprocal violence was one factor keeping American media outlets from showing the Danish cartoons of Muhammad that caused violent protests worldwide. But the vast majority of the time it's worth the risk, as it was with the cartoons. If an editor respects a columnist enough to give him space in her newspaper, she should respect his ideas enough to let him express them unfettered.

Unfortunately, real world considerations often intrude on our ideals. Let's say, for example, that Sam Fulwood was a white columnist who wrote "spearchucker" in a column. Would he be at greater risk of losing his job, even though he was just expressing his position the best way he knew how, no different than a black columnist? I think the answer, unfortunately, is yes.

Diadiun asked Fulwood if the color of the writer should be a factor in word choice, and Fulwood said no. "The difference comes down to self-censorship," he said. "Too many white reporters and columnists - indeed, white people - lack the courage to say what they really think out loud and in public about black people. And some black writers are loath to criticize black folks. I want the right, freedom and liberty as a writer to say what I think about white and black people who are public and prominent, without fear or favor."

I agree with you, Sam. But I think we're in the minority.

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