Free Speech, Minus the N-Word

Eddie Griffin proves that when it comes to the N-word, race doesn't matter.

Sept. 7, 2007 — -- There are few principles Americans will more fiercely defend than the right to free speech, especially in the arts. If you're holding a pen, a brush, an instrument or a microphone, there's an amendment that says you can say pretty much whatever you want.

Pretty much. Just don't say the N-word.

That may be the lesson learned by black comedian Eddie Griffin, whose recent standup routine at a Black Enterprise magazine event in Miami was halted when he asked his audience, "Why are some black leaders telling us to stop using the N-word?"

According to a statement from the Rev. Al Sharpton, Griffin's mike promptly cut out. Earl Graves, the owner and publisher of Black Enterprise, took the stage and said he refused to let Griffin finish his act if "that's the way he's going to talk."

A spokesperson from the magazine later said, "We believe that ending the performance was the appropriate action."

Griffin's publicist, Jeff Abraham, said he could not provide a statement Thursday evening.

Ever since "Seinfeld" alum Michael Richards used the N-word in a tirade at the Laugh Factory in November, Americans have been talking about who's allowed to say what. The debate heated up when radio host Don Imus referred to the members of the Rutgers University women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos" in April.

Now Griffin has become the first black entertainer to have his act canned because he used the racial slur employed by a slew of black comedians and rappers.

It seems that when it comes to who can and cannot get away with the N-word, race has nothing to do with it. Say it and odds are public castigation will follow.

N-word 'Love Affair' Turned Crusade

By his own admission, black comedian Paul Mooney "had a love affair" with the N-word. But last year, watching the 24-hour news networks play Richards' Laugh Factory rant over and over again, Mooney had a change of heart.

Since then, Richard Pryor's right-hand man has made it his mission to eradicate the N-word from pop culture. Mooney stood behind Richards when he met with members of the black community to apologize. He supported the NAACP when it symbolically "buried the N-word" at its July convention in Detroit. He said it's time for everyone to give up on the N-word.

"We tried to do what prostitutes do and what gays do. We tried to take the N-word and use it and make it our word," Mooney said. "But it's like this: A goat is a goat. Whether you sauté or fry it, it's still a goat. You can't change that."

Mooney said he recently tried to get Griffin to stop using the N-word in his routine.

"Last time I talked to him, he told me, 'How can you stop using it? I love it.' And I told him, 'Eddie, you have to grow up. You have to stop using it,'" he said. "Yeah, he should've been thrown off the stage for saying that. He should've been buried with the word. It's time to move on."

Would things be different if a more famous comedian like Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle had used the N-word? NAACP national spokesman Richard McIntire said no.

"It doesn't matter who uses it -- point blank," McIntire said. "We at the NAACP don't care to use it, don't care to hear it. We would hope that all entertainers are astute enough to know that."

That includes the rappers who throw around the N-word like it's a crisp dollar bill or bottle of Dom Perignon. In April, Russell Simmons, music mogul and founder of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, called on the recording and broadcast industries to ban the N-word and two other epithets from so-called "clean" versions of rap songs to make hip-hop more socially responsible.

Rock and Chappelle declined to comment on the Griffin incident. So did 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg. Apparently, in the age after Imus, it's not easy to get someone to stand up for the use of the N-word.

But in an August interview with ABC News Now, rapper T.I. came out in defense of the N-word, saying that if it's "used to stress a point, to get a valid point across ... then I understand."

And David E. Bernstein, professor of law at George Mason University, said that in certain contexts, use of the N-word may be warranted.

"There's parody, there's social commentary," he said. "I'm not familiar with exactly what [Griffin's] routine was, but I think the idea that there's never any circumstance where it's appropriate is going a little far."

Mooney thinks the effort to eradicate the N-word hasn't gone far enough. And that's not the only slur he wants to bury. Next on his list is "bitch."

"I never ever thought I would be doing this," he said. "I just want to live in a world without those words."