Everyone has the right to exercise free speech, except when they are serving as a representative of an organization. As an organizational representative, what you say should hew to the standards and beliefs of the organization.
It’s amazing how many times public language controversies hinge on whether the individual who made the statement was representing him or herself or an organization. At essence, representing the organization was at the heart of the “Duck Dynasty” and Donald Sterling controversies. AMC thought Phil Robertson, star of reality show “Duck Dynasty,” was representing the network when he made sexist and then racist statements. If Donald Sterling didn’t represent a professional basketball team, his vilely racist comments would not have made such news. The National Basketball Association recognized that as an owner Sterling always represented the league and therefore fined him and is trying to force him to sell his team.
Representing the organization is also the case with Wolfeboro, New Hampshire police commissioner Robert Copeland who called President Obama a “nigger.”
For at least the last 150 years, virtually everyone who speaks English has regarded “nigger” as a term of disparagement, similar to “kike,” “dago” or “frog.”
Some defenders of the use of the term “nigger” point out that calling a white from the rural south a “cracker” is the same thing. Since one is supposedly “allowed,” why not the other?
This view neglects the historical fact of slavery and the legal and institutional racism that poisoned much of the United States for more than a century after the demise of slavery and still affects the country in negative ways. “Niggers” were chattel that could be sold. “Niggers” had no control over their own lives. “Niggers” suffered the physical pains and humiliation of whippings, forced separation of families and rape. “Niggers” were considered genetically and morally inferior creatures who couldn’t take care of themselves, who shunned work and didn’t know how to handle money. “Niggers” were less than human. “Niggers” could be easily fooled since they had the emotions of children. “Niggers” deserve to live in poverty since they don’t know how to work hard.
That’s what most whites meant when they used the N-word from about 1800 onwards.
Everyone knows that the word “nigger” reflects all these meanings, which makes it a more scurrilous and damaging phrase than other ethnic insults, at least in the United States.
Even the Afro-American men who use the term with each other as a kind of endearment know that it’s a horrible insult. Male-bonding often devolves to gentle competitive sparring. I don’t know how many times I have called my male cousins “assholes” or “bozos” to their face, and none got mad, because they knew that my diminishment of them was a form of affection—or perhaps a replacement of the affection that American men are not supposed to display to other men. The very fact that the word “nigger” is especially harmful and disgusting makes it an ideal choice for male-bonding between Afro-American men. It doesn’t make the word acceptable in any other context, and certainly not acceptable for whites to use because when whites say “nigger,” it carries all its historical baggage.
Barack Obama is a smooth-talking city slicker who had an outstanding career as a scholar and elected official, and has excelled at everything he ever tried (except being a progressive president). He shares not a trait with the composite “nigger” that people evoke when they use that word. To call Obama a “nigger” can only be understood as an insult. When Copeland refused to apologize, he said that the President “meets and exceeds my criteria for such.” He could not have possibly meant anything other than the vilest of insults.
Now Copeland is entitled to his opinion about the President and African-Americans in general, and he has the right to express it.
But he doesn’t have the right to express it as a representative of Wolfeboro.
The simple fact of the matter is that when you are an elected or an appointed official, you pretty much sign on to representing your jurisdiction on a 24/7 basis. Once you become a mayor, Congressperson, police commissioner or judge, you de facto give up some right of speech. So whereas you might be entitled to your opinion and to use language that is inherently insulting, exercising that right will conflict with your public duties and with the image that your jurisdiction wants to maintain.
Executives of corporations face a similar constraint: if the news media discovered that a chief executive officer of a Fortune 500 company said “nigger” during a private dinner party, he would be unable to hide behind his right to free speech. The board of directors would summarily fire her/him. And they would be right to do it.
While no decision has been made yet, I’m guessing that the Wolfeboro township commissioners are going to end up firing Copeland or asking him to resign. They will have no choice. Otherwise, they will be tarred with the same racist brush that has rightfully dirtied their police commissioner. Now that kind of institutional racism might fly in the rural south, but probably not in New England.