Tuesday, January 27, 2004


Jeff Jacoby comments:

It doesn't take much to get slammed as a racist these days. Just ask 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."

Cute and harmless, right? Not to two black passengers, it wasn't. 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.

If you're scratching your head in bewilderment at this point, you aren't alone. 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.

Ah, but innocence offers scant protection against contemporary racial victimology. Neither does common sense or the right to free speech. Any of those should have been reason enough for US District Judge Kathryn Vratil to summarily bounce the lawsuit as frivolous. Instead, she ruled that Cundiff's little rhyme "could be reasonably viewed as objectively racist and offensive," and said a jury would have to decide "whether Cundiff's remark was racist, or simply a benign and innocent attempt at humor."

The trial took place last week. A jury of eight deliberated for less than an hour before finding Cundiff and Southwest innocent of racism. Needless to say, the stewardess and the airline will not be reimbursed for the lost hours and legal fees this preposterous lawsuit has cost them. And that isn't all that they lost.

Every time a case like this occurs -- every time someone is sued or punished or forced to hire a lawyer just for expressing an opinion or making a comment that someone of a different color finds offensive -- all of us are left with a little less freedom of speech. Dismayingly, such cases seem be occurring more frequently than ever. Now and then one of these incidents draws national scorn. A few years ago, a vast wave of ridicule forced the mayor of Washington, DC, to rehire an aide who had been accused of racism and forced to resign for using the word "niggardly" -- a synonym for stingy -- in a conversation.

But most of the time, these cases end with racial correctness trumping fairness and free speech.....

The First Amendment says nothing about a right not to be offended. The risk of finding someone else's speech offensive is the price each of us pays for our own free speech. Free people don't run to court -- or to the principle -- when they encounter a message they don't like. They answer it with one of their own.

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