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What speech is acceptable today?

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

It's been fascinating to see just how the talk radio industry actually the media in general has reacted to the Don Imus flap.

For those of you who have missed the incident from almost two weeks ago, the granddaddy of shock radio, Don Imus, referred to the Rutgers University womens basketball team by a term that insulted both their gender and race.

Some people have said it's just Imus doing what people expect of him: a crude comment from a once talented broadcaster who has evolved into a spent, nasty man.

What made this remark worse than the three million words of wisdom Imus has dispensed in the past is that it was aimed not at an elected official or celebrity, but at a group of young women who had taken their underdog team to the NCAA Final Four.

The conventional wisdom is that it's okay to attack people who court publicity, but not a group such as this team who were simply doing something they were supposed to do.

What has made the furor so interesting is its multiple tracks of discussion. Some talk show hosts have wondered if this is marking the beginning of a new form of censorship. Others have said that remarks made by right-wingers such as Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and Bill O'Reilly should also be considered grounds for their removal from their programs. Issues of politics, censorship and commercial considerations have all come into the discussions.

What Imus said was supposedly in the context of humor, something that is being obscured by some people. Imus is known for his acid wit, so can that be considered "hate speech?" Are Savage's remarks attacking gays and Muslims different than Imus' attempts at humor? That's an interesting question to ponder where is the line drawn?

And who should draw that line? Should Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton both men with checkered pasts of their own be designated as the judges of correct speech? I hope not.

What isn't being spoken about is what is correct speech and what isn't, especially in the context of comedy. The late comedian Lenny Bruce, who served jail time for using profanity, would be gob-smacked to see what is generally accepted today.

Profanity is easier to define and control perhaps than the issues of race, gender and sex.

Carlos Mencia on Comedy Central has a weekly series largely built on exploiting racial stereotypes and relations. If a white or African-American comic used the word "beaner" in his or her act, they might be considered as having stepped over an acceptable line.

Are "blonde" jokes funny to blondes? Is it all right to laugh if a person of Polish heritage tells a Polish joke and you're not Polish? Are there Southerners who object to the images put forward by Larry the Cable Guy? If you see Mantan Moreland in an old horror movie say, "Feet, do your duty!" is it funny or an embarrassment?

I don't know. Do you?

Let's face it, most of have us have either made a remark deemed inappropriate or heard something that was simply wrong. And we all know that how someone says something, to whom and in what context colors that joke or comment.

If you're offended how do you change things? I like to think it's through discussion.

I hoping this national dialogue doesn't get sidetracked by politics or taken over by self-appointed holier-than-thous. People should start talking about what is acceptable speech.

By the way, in my opinion, I'm glad that Imus was fired for his remarks. It wasn't humor and it hurt innocent people.

This column represents the opinions of its author. Send your comments to or to 280 N. Main St., East Longmeadow, Mass. 01028.