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Finding Bigotry in the Mirror

Recent expressions of hate speech may be protected as ‘free speech’ but what does it reveal about our community?

Is it okay to allow a high school student to wear a T-shirt to school with a blatant anti-gay message?

Should a Twitter account with hate speech about Jews, African Americans, Latinos and others be shut down?

The speech, prejudices and beliefs are out there, but we as human beings and as a community need to decide whether we will allow them to thrive unchallenged in our midst.

Both of the incidents I referred to above happened in our region very recently. 

On April 20, when Wolcott High School junior Seth Groody wore a T-shirt depicting a rainbow symbolic of gay rights on the front with a slash over it, he was doing so in protest of the day being designated “Day of Silence” -- part of the national movement to raise awareness of bullying and harassment of gays and lesbians. His shirt also pictured female and male stick figures holding hands on the back, under the phrase, “Excessive Speech Day.”

Last week, a Twitter account presumably written by one or several students at Wilton High School was found to be -- purporting to describe what life in Wilton is like. Written under the account @YouLiveInWilton, some recent tweets include the following gems:

“F*ck Darien. Since they don't allow Jews to live in their town, they dump them on our land!”

"#IWillNeverUnderstandWhy people think we're racist? We love black people... Everyone should own one."

Of course these aren’t the first incidences of racism and prejudice, and they certainly won’t be the last.

Just this year, there have been more times where racism and bias made the headlines. In January, East Haven for saying the way he’d support Latinos in his town would be by “hav[ing] tacos when I go home.” And Darien resident as well as assault and larceny after an altercation with a cab driver, during which he allegedly made some bigoted statements.

Indeed, prejudice seems to be alive and well here in Connecticut.

I’m less interested in the punishment or the consequence for perpetrators of isolated, single incidents. What is more important to me is the response from the community as a whole to incidences like the ones I’ve described.

Is there an effort to dismiss, minimize or ignore the offensive material? When I wrote about the Wilton Life Twitter account, some people suggested that the comments were really satirical. Perhaps I wasn’t clever enough to get the joke?

“Under any circumstance, language like that and statements of that nature are not funny. They’re hurtful to people and they cause problems in the community,” emphasized Gary Jones, the CT Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).  “Most people who have no intention of [being] bigoted and demeaning certainly understand that. Our leaders need to reinforce that principle so that there can be no confusion.”

Some people suggested that when residents read the news about the hate speech, people might not care. Perhaps they’d chalk it up to a “kids-will-be-kids” kind of behavior. But Jones also said to dismiss such language is also dangerous.

“Ignoring hate speech or people or incidents, is rarely a good thing. Because it sets a tone of acceptance for inappropriate behavior, it may make it more likely to be copied.”

Curiously, in the Wolcott case of the student wearing a T-shirt expressing his anti-gay sentiment, Groody found himself with an unusual defender -- the ACLU. Defending the teen’s First Amendment rights, Sandra Staub, the director of the ACLU of CT, told the Hartford Courant, “The ACLU has fought hard for same-sex marriage and we couldn’t agree with Seth less on that issue, but he is absolutely correct about his right to express his opinion.”

There needs to be a distinction made between free-speech and appropriate speech -- what is going to better our community, and what needs to be defended against tearing it down. My hope is that while the ACLU was absolutely correct in defining Groody’s right to spew his hate, there were more people that stood up to say, “We repudiate it.”

To think of it another way, how would the community have reacted if the shirt had been expressing anti-African American or anti-Latino language? In truth, when one segment of our community is attacked, it’s really an attack on the community as a whole.

It’s in the response by the community to stand up for the subject of such outward bigotry that paints a true picture of the community as a whole. “One of the things that haters like to do is to make the people who are their targets feel small and alone. That’s a very powerful weapon they have if they are successful. But there’s an equally powerful weapon that the good people in the community have, and that is to stand with the people who are the victims, and make it clear that the victims are not isolated and alone, they have the support of the entire community. Rather, it’s the haters and the bigots who are isolated and alone and who have no support,” said the ADL’s Jones.

Racism and bigotry does leave you feeling isolated and alone — it’s divisive and poisonous and is designed to keep us separate. I find it sadly ironic that this week marks the death of Rodney King, who involuntarily became a symbol for racial bias and hate after the 1992 Los Angeles riots started, spurred by the acquittal of police officers whose beating of King was caught on videotape. While you may not have agreed with some of the missteps King took in the 20 years since, there’s something to be said for the sentiments he expressed the day after the riots began:

“Can’t we all just get along?”

Have you witnessed or heard of such incidents of prejudice in the Fairfield community? What can be done to prevent these acts?

Caitlin Mazzola (Editor) June 19, 2012 at 01:17 PM
From the Fairfield Patch Facebook page: "These are not free speech issues. The First Amendment does not protect you if Twitter decides to suspend your account. Twitter is a private company, not the government. Twitter is very popular because it allows people to share their opinions openly. The kid wearing the shirt in school is a little more complicated since the school is run by the government. I assume it's a public school. Time after time, it has been decided that free speech on campus is not protected. I still don't have a problem with his shirt. I disagree with what he said but he was stating his point of view in a somewhat respectful manner. No less disrespectful than opinions from the other side. Neither of these issues are free speech issues and people should be able to do as they please. If I don't like what they have to say, I can just not listen. Nothing is forcing me to be part of their audience. I can refuse to use their business if I dislike their opinion. If they're an elected official who says something I disagree with, I just won't vote for them." -- Patrick Lucas www.facebook.com/FairfieldPatch What do you think?
Frederick Klein June 19, 2012 at 01:35 PM
There's some benefit to letting the kid with the shirt walk around in public because it signals to everyone around him what an idiot he is. His parents must be proud. Without the explanation, I just would have been confused . . . 'Does the kid hate rainbows?'
Chuck E. Arla June 19, 2012 at 02:13 PM
So, Ms. Borden Herve are you to be the arbiter of what is and isn't worthy of 1st Ammendment protection? Please do a quick search for some of the comments by Ray Bradbury which were recently republicized at his recent death. It's going to get hot this week . . .but let's not let it get up to 451 Fahrenheit.
Heather Borden Herve June 19, 2012 at 03:25 PM
My column is asking people to think about how they, as a community, would respond to expressions of hate speech and bigotry when they arise. I don't believe I argued for anything to not be protected--only for the communities to be open to examining how they would respond to such hateful speech or expression. Like I wrote above, I'm less interested in the punishment of such expression, than I am in how the community responds to it. If the community says, "We repudiate it," I think that means "We don't agree with your bigotry and we stand with the group or person you were trying to victimize." I understand the freedom of people to speak hate, and I'm not advocating curtailing that freedom--I just hope people can recognize when the speech is inappropriate.
Chuck E. Arla June 19, 2012 at 05:35 PM
"There needs to be a distinction made between free-speech and appropriate speech" A slippery slope.
MAC June 19, 2012 at 08:28 PM
Mrs. Herve, you have contradicted yourself by referring to Seth's t-shirt as both "protest of the day being designated “Day of Silence” and "anti-gay sentiment" and "spew[ing] his hate." The shirt is NOT "hate" speech. Seth was simply exercising his Constitutional right to hold and express different views, and protest the pc "silence" that he probably felt was "bullying" (in a way) or at least intimidating most into appearing to support/accept notions such as "gay" marriage. I too have long objected to the rainbow being misappropriated as the symbol of gays and lesbians. This misappropriation has since tainted, imo, that formerly joyfully innocent and child associated depiction of the rainbow, or rainbow colors in say umbrellas, belts and other clothing items. I agree with many of your points in this piece, but you have obviously been indoctrinated by the gay activists that anyone who disagrees with their views is a "hateful bigot." Seth was was 'courageously' expressing an alternate view--and standing up to the 'intimidation' to COMPLY, and against an assumption of agreement with the pc views of an activist minority. Those with same-sex "sexual orientation" constitute no more than 2 % of the general population. Obviously bullying in general is a much more pervasive problem, so if this "day of silence" is such a great idea, then why not make it an opportunity for students to "express their solidarity" with ALL victims of bullying, for any reason?!!
Frederick Klein June 19, 2012 at 09:25 PM
MAC - So the kid's expression against a minority that is standing up for its civil rights is "courageous". And you have a problem with them using a rainbow because it taints colorful umbrellas for you? I guess you can't eat Skittles anymore because of the slogan inviting you to "taste the rainbow". Yes, I can see how every time you see a rainbow in the future, it's going to be ruined because you are being forced to think of "gays and lesbians". And how awful that you won't feel "joyfully innocent" the next time you are exposed to a colorful belt. You and this kid Seth are both prizes.
brian kelly June 20, 2012 at 04:54 AM
we are a nation of tribes! and we have gotten to the point that everyone that lives in this country is a victim. either we have freedom of speech or we don't. choose one! the new america is a lawyer's dream...
Frederick Klein June 20, 2012 at 12:21 PM
There have always been limits on speech in public school. You can't publish anything you want in a public school newspaper.
--- June 26, 2012 at 12:35 AM
An....interesting...article. My question is, however, why is it Jews, Latinos, and African Americans? Are there not Jewish Americans, or Latino Americans? Can't these people be given the dignity of simply being referred to as Americans? Exactly. Free Speech isn't dead; it's been emasculated.
Concerned Parent June 26, 2012 at 06:47 PM
It's been my observation that the Constitution is tossed around these days like a hot potato and only embraced when the topic is the latest flava of the day. Our forefathers had abundantly more foresight, than we do today in how the Constitution was drafted and stood for. We do not live in a perfect country, however, our freedoms make it the greatest on Earth. By virtue of what the Constitution represents, freedom of expression is just what it says, freedom to express. In the case that this type of expression which appears to offend some people, I'm sorry you feel upset. People today have become too cynical and sensitive and are willing to forego the freedoms our forefathers gave their lives for to make available for all of us today, simply because they don't like what they hear, say, or see. So for those who are easily offended, I recommend taking a deep breath, look outside at the sky, enjoy life, and relish those freedoms which are so taken for granted today.
MAC June 26, 2012 at 08:09 PM
If all simply respected the Constitution and FIRST Amendment rights, then we all could still have the "freedoms" which the Founders intended. Unfortunately, that has become much less consistently the case, in schools, the public square, with left-wing career politicians, and in the media--where talking heads (such as on MESSNBC) hatefully shout down and insult with obscenities those whom they disagree with politically. Here are just a couple of scary examples of the dire threats against our "First Freedoms": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vnJBW49afzg "American Muslims Stone Christians in Dearborn, MI" (There is more about this on Dearborn Patch, and also from www.TheUnitedWest.org) "Taking a scythe to the Bill of Rights" ..."Now comes Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) ...Joined by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), 26 other Democrats and one Republican, he proposes a constitutional amendment to radically contract First Amendment protections. His purpose is to vastly expand government’s power — i.e., the power of incumbent legislators — to write laws regulating, rationing or even proscribing speech in elections that determine the composition of the legislature and the rest of the government. McGovern’s proposal vindicates those who say that most campaign-finance “reforms” are incompatible with the First Amendment."... http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/taking-a-scythe-to-the-bill-of-rights/2012/05/04/gIQAs3XL2T_story.html
Concerned Parent June 26, 2012 at 08:23 PM
@MAC, If that is true, what Nancy Pelosi and Jim McGovern are attempting will strip Americans of our fundamental freedoms. Kind of ironic considering they are affiliated with the liberal-minded and progressive party.
Chuck E. Arla June 26, 2012 at 08:35 PM
Do some reading on the Progressive movement....particularly its founding. Very negative toward the Consitution.
MAC June 26, 2012 at 10:41 PM
It's definitely true, Ed. The leftist BIG government types have been working on this ever since the Citizens United ruling by the SCOTUS. Here is more from George Will's piece above: McGovern says of "his 'People’s Rights Amendment' that "it shall not be construed 'to limit the people’s rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free exercise of religion, freedom of association and all such other rights of the people, which rights are inalienable.' But the amendment is explicitly designed to deny such rights to natural persons who, exercising their First Amendment right to freedom of association, come together in corporate entities to speak in concert."... "Newspapers, magazines, broadcasting entities, online journalism operations — and most religious institutions — are corporate entities. McGovern’s amendment would strip them of all constitutional rights. By doing so, the amendment would empower the government to do much more than proscribe speech. Ilya Somin of George Mason University Law School, writing for the Volokh Conspiracy blog, notes that government, unleashed by McGovern’s amendment, could regulate religious practices at most houses of worship, conduct whatever searches it wants, reasonable or not, of corporate entities, and seize corporate-owned property for whatever it deems public uses — without paying compensation. Yes, McGovern’s scythe would mow down the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, as well as the First."

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