For a country founded on free speech, some people are getting a lot of flack for opening their mouths.
On Monday, CBS Radio, still reeling from the fall of Don Imus, suspended two local DJs for rebroadcasting a prank call to a Chinese restaurant. The call featured the hosts of WFNY-FM's "The Dog House With JV and Elvis" asking for "flied lice" and referring to the restaurant's female employee as "hot, Asian, spicy."
The same day, Russell Simmons, music mogul and founder of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, announced that the recording and broadcast industries should ban three racial and sexist epithets from so-called "clean" versions of rap songs to make hip-hop more socially responsible.
And a New York police sergeant was reassigned after calling three female officers "hos" during a roll call at a Brooklyn stationhouse. In a statement, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly called the sergeant's comments "unacceptable under any circumstances."
From the airwaves to the arts to the street, it seems as if the language police are out in full force. Maybe that's the way it's going to be in the age AI. -- After Imus.
After the talk show host got kicked off the air for calling the women of the Rutgers University basketball team "nappy-headed hos," talk of racial and sexual slurs -- who is saying what and why -- is on the lips of people all over the country.
Political correctness is nothing new. But some say the debate Imus started about what can and cannot be said in public could forever change the language used in pop culture.
Degradation vs. Satire
Bob Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, believes that after Imus, certain people -- especially on-air personalities -- should censor what comes out of their mouths.
"CBS is obviously hypersensitive about this now. If you're on a CBS show and you're making egregiously Asian jokes, you ought to be scared," he said.
But David E. Bernstein, professor of law at George Mason University and author of "You Can't Say That! The Growing Threat to Civil Liberties from Antidiscrimination Laws," fears that if everyone who says anything offensive gets reprimanded, people will shut up altogether.
"There has to be some allowance for mistakes, for people saying things off the cuff," he said. "We don't want a situation where people are afraid to say anything unscripted for fear of getting fired."
Radio hosts prank call a Chinese restaurant and get suspended. Fox's "Family Guy" makes fun of a heavily accented "Asian reporter Trisha Takanawa" and gets laughs. What's the difference?
According to Camille Paglia, professor of humanities and media at the University of the Arts, it's all about context. Satire is one thing; degrading real people is another.
"Crossing the line into real life is the problem," she told ABC News in a telephone interview when questioned about the hosts who made the prank call. "I too would support them being suspended."
Paglia, however, also supports the right of satire and commentary. "Popular culture is an art form. Pop culture needs protection as the fine arts do. But the moment you step over the line into a news genre, then there are different standards. A different level of judgment is required," she explained.
That's where Imus messed up, according to Paglia. Straddling the line between entertainer and journalist, she said, he took liberties that traditional news reporters should not take. "Things that go on in a comedy club, things that go on in a late-night show like 'Saturday Night Live,' it's absolutely different from an early morning drive-time show that comments on contemporary politics in a serious way as well as a satirical way," she said. "I do feel that Imus should be held to a different standard than a comedian."
Thompson believes those standards should be established by broadcasters and distributors. Some entertainers can push the envelope further than others, and it's up to the people who pay them to figure out how far they can go.
"There are lines and they're all over the place. They just need to be clear by the employers," Thompson said. "Comedy Central has certain lines and they have certain lines for certain shows. "The sketches that Dave Chappelle was doing on 'The Chappelle Show' were comedy and humor that if it were played on 'Seinfeld' would have and could have caused an absolute controversy. One has to look at who's saying it, who they're saying it to, and the context."
Time to Reflect and Raise Standards
Through the Imus fallout, some comedians seemed to hold back from satirizing him and his infamous comment.
On April 14, "Saturday Night Live" brought out a cowboy-hat, denim jacket clad Darrell Hammond to mimic a bumbling, apologetic Imus. Hammond's imitation of Imus' twang was amusing, but the sketch lacked bite. It got a smattering of laughter from the audience, and on "YouTube," where a clip of it was posted, one commenter wondered why "SNL" went with a tame approach, saying, "SNL could have done something really funny with this. I hate to join the SNL-basher crowd, but even I could have written a better comedy sketch around the Imus affair."
The uncertainty about how to turn Imus' crassness into comedy was an example of what Thompson and Paglia said is the embattled talk show host's gift to America: An opportunity to pause and re-evaluate what's worth saying and what's not.
As Russell Simmons' call for clean language showed, hip-hop embraced the moment. Danny Simmons, Russell's older brother and creator of HBO's spoken-word series "Def Poetry Jam," believes the music would be better without misogyny.
"I don't think that any of that stuff is essential to good music," he said. "When you go back to the roots of early hip-hop, you don't hear the misogyny, you don't hear the roots of negative language the way it's being used now."
The industry remains divided on whether rap should censor itself to serve a social good. But Paglia hopes other sectors of pop culture will follow Russell Simmons' suit and, at the very least, reconsider using racist and sexist language.
"I do think that something's gone very wrong with standards of creativity in the popular arts. It's not that this is bad, this isn't nice -- it's that it's too easy. It's knee-jerk crap," she said. "It's time to clean things up not because the government is telling us to do so or has any right to do so, but because there should be standards and it should be better."