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Out damned Slur! The Judicial Enforcement of Multicultural Manners
Had a chat the other day with Janis Barton, the Michigan housewife who may have the distinction of being the first person in American history to be jailed for uttering an ethnic slur in an overheard private conversation.
Barton resides in Manistee, a small town in the northern part of the state, and not a place you would think would be a hotbed of oppression in the name of Political Correctness. But Manistee is not exempt from America's burgeoning experiment in multiculturalism, which includes not only the joys of less expensive maids and gardeners, (aka lower wages for working class Americans) but a very touchy speech code system designed to ensure that all the cultures mesh together smoothly. That system is now assuming a form that would drive to despond the drafters of the Bill of Rights.
There is no dispute about the facts of the incident which led to Barton's imprisonment. In August 1998, she was leaving a restaurant with her mother and daughter, and passed another group waiting to be seated. As Barton, mother and daughter, passed by, the others said something in Spanish – as it turned out the man was asking his daughter, sheriff's deputy Carol Benitez, to move over and make room for the Bartons to leave. As she passed through the door, Barton turned and said to her mother "I wish damn spics would learn to speak English." Carol Benitez (out of uniform) overheard the comment and followed Barton out to her car and confronted her. Barton gave Benitez the finger. Benitez filed a misdemeanor complaint—first charging Barton with disturbing the peace, and then altered the charge to "insulting conduct in a public place."
This is not exemplary behavior by Barton, who may have been having a bad day and who, from what I gleaned from talking with her, is a prickly sort who doesn't back down easily. VDARE, needless to say, abhors the use of racial slurs. But that this vulgarity became reason for an arrest and trial — and subsequent imprisonment, makes one wonder whether the country we are living in is still America.
The trial turned on the question of whether the words Barton used were "fighting words"-- likely to cause a violent confrontation. It seems implausible that a woman whose casual comment to her mother, while walking out of a restaurant with her daughter in tow, was by any reasonable standard, starting a fight. But Judge Brent Danielson's instruction to the jury apparently persuaded them to convict.
When the jury found Barton guilty, her "victims" sensibly suggested she be sentenced to community service, perhaps with migrant workers. The judge would have none of this -- Barton, he said, was a "bigot" and he sentenced her to 45 (!) days in jail.
If Janis Barton is a bigot, she is an unusual one. She spoke movingly to me about her son-in-law, who is black, and not having an easy time of it. She is, however, a person who doesn't like to back down, and she did – like how many millions of other people - use an ethnic slur in a public place.
The story here becomes legally complicated: after she served four days in jail, her attorney apparently agreed to some sort of deal for her release—under which she agreed not to appeal her conviction. Barton now denies she made this agreement, and she is (with a new attorney) taking her case through the Michigan courts, seeking a "leave to appeal" that would enable her to have her conviction overturned and her record cleared. They are now waiting for Michigan's Supreme Court to rule on the case.
The ACLU has turned down Barton's request for assistance, using a thought process that is hard to fathom. One can disapprove of ethnic slurs; one can recognize that in some cases, their use can constitute "fighting words" and present a criminal justice problem. But in this case, that is a stretch. Indeed, more than a stretch, it's a running leap across the boundaries of of common sense.
Hey guys, this is [still] America: we may roll our eyes when Janis Barton walks and says she thinks "spics" should speak English, but responding by throwing her in jail is allowing, in effect, immigration to turn us into a despotism.
January 28, 2001