Man Fined $150 for Racial Slur

In Passaic, N.J. a judge fined a man $150 for using a racial slur against a public works employee who was repairing a “No Parking” sign. The charge was violating the city’s ban on “the N-word.”

So, what do you think about laws banning “the N-word” and about fines for racial slurs?


  1. Lia

    I have mixed feelings about outlawing the n-word. It seems that outlawing a word only puts a bandage on a wound that needs much more intensive care. Racism runs so deep in this country that I don’t know if outlawing a word will create a deeper divide among racial groups, mainly between Blacks and Whites, or if it will teach new generations that racism is wrong.

    And what about the n-word being used among Blacks? Is that okay? Is it different if the ending is ‘er’ or ‘a’? I don’t feel comfortable making a statment about this as it is something that I run around and around in my head about. Is it okay for groups to criticize themselves, but not okay for outsiders to do so? Does it depend on who’s doing the criticizing and what their feelings are about the particular group they are criticizing?

  2. As much as I dislike the word, I have more dislike for censorship and infringement on the first amendment. Besides, if I want to call a racist white person a “cracker,” i want to be able to have the right to do so…just joking. But seriously, it’s the overused slippery slope.

  3. Seattle in Texas

    Oh boy. This question makes me feel so conservative…I am in favor of free speech but also in favor of discrimination laws being enforced. Everybody should have the right to be free of discrimination and other sorts of hostilities. I know when I grew up it was just not a word to be said, period—regardless of color, and if somebody did say it, then there were informal sanctions (although, if students used it in the schools they could and would have been reprimanded). The answers above demonstrate the complexity…I think with relation to this particular term, there should be room to at least cite somebody for using it—particularly if there is hate behind it and harm was done. I know people who would argue that it depends on if it has the “er” or “a” at the end, and other things. But, I know at least where I come from, if you are white and say that word particularly to a person of color, you will be sorry—end of story—you don’t say it. Now, who gets arrested in that situation? The person of color who was harmed by the word in the first place—that seems wrong to me. So, I think there has to be some level of discretion used when enforcing fines and so on. If the person feels as though they were harmed, then the discrimination laws have to be enforced. Yet it seems so odd that such a question has to be asked—times have changed so much. I know twenty years ago, at least some of my friends would have been so pleased to have arrests made for the term being used. Others still prefer the ultimate Freedom of Speech for many good reasons–even though obvious emotional and psychological damages can and have been done. I think where I get lost is with how it became appropriate at all in any context, whether it has the “er” or “a” at the end? I think we can still have the freedom of expression while enforcing discrimination laws. That term has an obvious painful historical context that others do not, such as, cracker, red neck, etc. Yet every time such terms are used, racism and prejudices are being reinforced, which gets in the way of breaking it all down.

  4. Mel

    Oh this is a hard one. If you ban racial slurs, you are really acknowledging deep-seeded racism in this country but more importantly, you are providing no real solution to the root of the problem. I agree with Lia that this is simply doing triage rather than thinking how we can work in our communities to solve prejudices. Finally, if we start to ban these forms of expression, however horrible they may be, where does this slippery slope end? And how does this fit under the First Amendment?

  5. Kate

    While I understand the desire behind having such laws, this kind of law is a violation of free speech. The issue comes down to a prettyfundamental constitutional distinction: we have the right to freedom of speech up to the point where that speech becomes slander, defamation, or harassment. What then constitutes slander, defamation, or harassment is left up to the judicial and legislative processes. Instead of banning specific words, perhaps broadening harassment laws to include hateful speech for the purpose of intimidation? This would also cover a lot of anti-LGBTQ speech. Currently it is very difficult to prosecute harassment claims on the basis of language used alone; to expand harassment laws to include defamatory speech would enable victims to seek prosecution without the first amendment issues of banning particular words. Furthermore, as the claims would then have to be subject to a judicial process, the mere act of speech would not be criminal.

  6. Collette

    In an era of increasing infringement on our civil rights, banning the use of any word would contribute to this trend, a trend which I find deeply disturbing and which may be difficult to recover from when we transition into a more liberal era. As another reader pointed out, if you ban this word, where do you stop? What would banning a word accomplish? Would it change beliefs or behavior? I think not.

  7. Laura

    I’d be interested to learn more about the discussion in Passaic, NJ that resulted in a city-wide ban of the word. Were there public forums? Was there a particularly harmful incident that spurred the discussions? Who introduced the concept of a ban–an elected official, a citizen of Passaic? How was it determined that ($150) was an appropriate fine? Certainly, the word has the power to do harm, and is loaded with a history of oppression and hatred, and for its use I feel certain individuals should be reprimanded. However, if other individuals find power in the casual, often friendly appropriation of the word, it does not seem fair to punish its use. Are there safe spaces to host discussions about the power of this word, so that communities don’t wait until it’s used hatefully to consider its meaning in our culture?

  8. Tracey

    I’d also like to know more about this law- was the law applied because the word was used against a public works official or is it applicable with all residents? Having grown up near Passaic and knowing that it’s had a long history of racially charged incidents and violence over the years, it seems like this law would have been enacted in order to have a way to prevent more serious hate crimes from occurring. But, it is still a very slippery slope from banning a very emotionally and historically charged word to banning other forms of speech. While I believe that hate crimes should be designated as such and prosecuted differently, I am very uncomfortable with legal bans of language between individuals.

  9. jessica

    While I commend this action for its public display of condemnation for racism, and feel the usage of the word is reprehensible; I’m apprehensive about this move for several reasons. (Like Seattle, I shutter to think of myself sitting on the conservative fence with this one too). First for its obvious infringement upon First Amendment rights (gradmommy’s example is one that came to my mind too). And secondly, it masks the real issue of confronting and deconstructing, in a real way, the historical system of racism and inequality in the US–which is the real issue. Fines, like our country’s (and educational system’s) focus on celebrating diversity and “tolerance” instead of critical deconstruction of race, inequality and class, only act to mask the problem.

  10. Kate

    This is a difficult question that I have mixed feelings about. While I think it is important to recognize the ever pertinent issue of racism in our society, I don’t feel that a fine is the correct way in which to address this. Furthermore, what about the use of the “N-word” by African Americans themselves….?

  11. Elizabeth

    I have to say, I believe important concepts have been previously mentioned in earlier comments already. Putting a ban on one racial slur, opens the doors to further banning of slurs used by particular cultural and ethnic groups. This involves a series of judgment calls and by whom? When do we know when to stop? How do we make everyone happy? These issues can become quite extensive. Also, there is a matter of how effective this ban is depending on how it is enforced.

    When dealing with a cultural concern such as outspoken racism or prejudice, I feel that it is important to target the fundamental causes that leads to such behaviors instead of targeting the behavior itself. You can’t just tell a kid that he or she did something wrong and needs to be punished, but it is more important to teach the kid why what he or she did was wrong. This is where education comes in. People need to learn that racism may come out whether they realize it or not and in ways they might not even be aware of. Instead of banning racial slurs, a law should be made to cover issues of racism and prejudice in the work force and academic settings.

  12. On one hand I think its a sign of progress in America to have a word that is degrading to Black people and was on more people’s tongues than taste buds, be considered so offensive that it has to be banned. On the other hand I think its a waste of time. How do you even enforce something like this? Are we actually moving toward a “Judge Dredd” society where we get fined for inappropriate words?

  13. Seattle in Texas

    All of the posts above are interesting and again make great points and even arguments. But I know why the question seems so odd—when I think of “free speech” I think of the right to challenge the state/government if necessary so as to ensure fundamental human rights are met, preserved, and maintained. That means “rights to” and “freedoms of”—this allows for a balancing point of fundamental protections and freedoms all people should be entitled to. I personally just cannot see or support the idea of the use of “N” word fitting under such protections (unless it is for historical/scholarly purposes, etc.). But, I think where I am coming from fits within the idea of “Freedoms of” and not “Rights to”…Germany outlawed the Swastika and other nazi paraphernalia and ideologies, why the does U.S. in general insist on protecting the “N” word? To me, the “N” word is just as repulsive as the Swastika. We are in 2008 now…it would seem as though that term should be a very embarrassing part of our history, not something to protect and embrace in any shape or form.

    Here’s a couple of observations that threw me into momentary shock and reality checks: 1. A black father tells his son: “Get over here ni**a”; 2. A biracial couple explains they are “going to make a bunch of “niglets”; 3. At a fairly reputable business—a black employee walks by a white employee and nonchalantly the white says: “Mornin Ni**ger” and the black responds in the same tone: “Mornin Cracker” and continues walking. Is all this okay? I’m sure opinions would vary greatly, but while I do like all the people mentioned above very much, I see it problematic and perpetuating racism. I only share because it is a different context than what I have seen before—yet I would argue just as harmful….

    We are in 2008! My problem is, it seems as though by now the idea of giving out fines for using the word should seem absurd because it should have been extinct long ago—not because it is still used today.

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