Published January 24, 2007
It's one of the most reviled words in the English language, but if one Texas mayor gets his way, getting caught uttering the "N-word" will hit offenders where it hurts.
Mayor Ken Corley of Brazoria, Texas, has proposed a city ordinance that would make using the word in an offensive fashion a crime equal to disturbing the peace and punishable by a fine of up to $500. But legal experts said it's unlikely the law will stand up to the First Amendment.
"I would like to, if possible, ban all racial slurs," Corley told FOXNews.com. "We chose this word because it's the most controversial issue throughout the United States today."
Corley said the city would like to go after the use of other racial slurs, "but we want to take this one step at a time, depending on public opinion."
The 62-year-old mayor, who is a self-described "middle-class white boy," got the idea for the ordinance after watching Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton discuss banning the N-word on TV after "Seinfeld" comedian Michael Richards used it in an act last November.
"The word is not used or abused in the streets of our town; it's more, amongst the black community, as a term of endearment, OK?" Corley said. "But it is a national issue, and I would like the city of Brazoria to take a leadership role throughout the nation in banning the use of this word."
Corley polled his constituents and found "overwhelming support" for the ordinance. Brazoria, with a population of around 2,800, is an industrial city nestled about 50 miles south of Houston near the Gulf of Mexico coast. About 10 percent of the population is black.
Under the proposed Brazoria ordinance, users of the N-word would be fined only if a complaint were filed against them, thus protecting those who think they are using the word as a term of endearment.
"This is government trying to take the easy way out," said Judge Andrew Napolitano, a FOX News legal analyst. "When people use words that are harmful, they lack civility and they lack education, but they don't lack the right to say it."
Bishop Ricky Jones, a black minister and the head of the Living Word Fellowship Christian Center in Brazoria, "wholeheartedly" supports the ordinance and the mayor, though he doesn't agree with the "term of endearment" loophole.
"It's trying to be made a term of endearment in the black community, the way it has been used so loosely, but I for one, when I look at that word and look at the history of it, it has been used to demonize, demoralize and degrade black people as a whole."
Jabari Asim, a deputy editor at the Washington Post and author of the forthcoming book "The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't and Why," has traced the American arrival of the word to 1619 when a Jamestown, Va., diarist, John Rolfe, noted: "We got 20 niggers today on a Dutch man-of-war."
"That's the first recorded instance of African captives arriving to British North America and that was the word used to describe them," Asim said.
Over the last 25 years, the hip-hop community has sprinkled the word throughout its anthems.
"It's really important for people to realize that the history of the word goes so far back that recent developments in the past 20 years [of] casual use," Asim said. "There is no god higher than history and I don't think recent developments are strong enough to overcome the centuries of hatred that are attached to the word."
Brazoria's proposed ordinance is the first time an American city has tried to ban the word, though groups such as Abolish the "N" Word have lobbied for its permanent retirement, Asim said.
"Calling for societal change is one thing, but calling for legislation against speech is quite another," he said. "That's practically anti-American to say that we're going to allow the government and Uncle Sam determine how we speak to one another. It's counterintuitive to me. It's best to lead by example than by legislation."
Napolitano doubts the ordinance will stand up in a court of law.
"You can't just pick a word because then you're granting more protection to the victims of that word than you are to victims of other words, so you really open up a Pandora's box," Napolitano said.
The ordinance is on shaky ground legally because of a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision, R.A.V. vs. the City of St. Paul, said David Hudson, a First Amendment scholar at the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn.
"Fighting words are not protected by the First Amendment, and a lot of fighting words are face to face personal insults," Hudson said. "But in 1992, in this case, the court held that selective banning of fighting words, in other words, singly out, for instance, fighting words based on race and sex, that that constituted viewpoint discrimination and violated the First Amendment.
"It's a well-intentioned effort, but it's a well-intentioned unconstitutional effort," Hudson said.
Corley said that while he has "some concerns" about the law's legal standing, the city attorney is confident it will pass muster.
A public hearing will be held Thursday, before the five-member city council decides on whether to pursue the measure. Last year, it was the first city in Texas to pass a sex-offender ordinance.