Jan. 25, 2007 -- The mayor of a small Texas town wants to make people pay -- literally -- for saying the N-word.
Ken Corley, mayor of Brazoria, Texas, is proposing a citywide ordinance that would make uttering the racial slur punishable by up to a $500 fine.
Recent comments by the Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson about phasing out the N-word inspired Corley, who is white. Although the slur is largely taboo, Corley said he still believes he needs to take a stand.
"It's not an issue in the city of Brazoria…It is a national issue," he said. "The word is used and abused, obviously, or they wouldn't have been talking about it on national TV. It would be great [for the town] to play a leadership role…That is a stand that I have decided to take."
Under Corley's proposal, the ordinance would be enforced by citizens complaining to local police who would then write a citation to the offender. The offender would have to appear in court where a judge would determine the level of his or her fine. If approved by the city council, the ordinance would make Brazoria the first town in the country to make uttering the N-word a punishable offense.
A Small Town Divided
But not everyone in Brazoria is in favor of the law. Rev. Dr. Melvin L. Johnson, pastor of the Heart of Christ Community Church, believes it's just a Band-Aid approach to a larger problem.
"This particular focus on this one word does not really address the issues, because we can't regulate people's thoughts," said the pastor, who is black. "A person has a constitutional right to be stupid. We can't make a law against people who may have feelings that we don't approve of."
Johnson believes the ordinance unfairly targets whites and turns a blind eye on blacks who use the N-word.
"It's intended to target whites…but there are just as many blacks who use the word too," he said. "It's very difficult for me…to support any action aimed at one group with the intention of punishment and saying it's alright for another group."
Johnson worries that if the N-word becomes a punishable offense, young people eager to rebel might find it even more enticing than they do now.
"Teenagers, adolescents, they have the tendency to be rebels. God forbid if they use it even more than what it's being used now, but that's highly possible," he said.
Rather than throw legislation at a slur, Johnson wants to get to the root of racial hatred.
"If we can address the root of racial hatred, the word itself and all of the other words of hate and dehumanization would actually lose their meanings," he said. "People would not want to use them, not for fear of law, but for the ability to self-govern."
Brazoria May Set Trend
This isn't the first time Brazoria has made headlines for controversial legislation.
In 2005, again under Corley's guidance, Brazoria became the first Texas city to pass a law that restricted sex offenders from living inside city limits. Neighboring Texas towns began investigating the possibility of passing a similar measure in their areas. Now that Corley wants to outlaw the N-word, other towns may follow suit.
"I have had a few [calls]…from mayors in different areas," Corley said. "I think this is…a controversial issue. They are waiting to see how it plays out…I don't know if this would spread nationwide, but I would hope so."
Critics say that even if towns across the nation passed ordinances like Corley's, enforcing them would be all but impossible.
"There's no constitutional way it could ever be enforced," said T. Gerald Treece, professor of constitutional law at the South Texas College of Law. "No one is ever going to be prosecuted under this law."
Treece, who is white, explained that outlawing the N-word flies in the face of the First Amendment. Regardless of a word's nastiness, the Constitution allows people to say it.
"The First Amendment allows really stupid, mean-spirited things to be said to each other," he said. "Maybe it's the unclean, unsanitary part of free speech, but it's there."
How to Police Speech?
Corley acknowledges that in order for the ordinance to work, certain legal requirements will have to be met.
"The only way that this is possible according to my attorney is if we put this under disorderly conduct [law] under language," he said.
Still, the mayor insists that the vast majority of the people he has talked to about the law are in favor of it.
"When I first started exploring this it was 90 percent in favor," he said. "That momentum has changed. It looks about 30 percent in favor, 70 percent against from the comments ... [of the] council members."
The City Council will hold an open hearing Thursday night to hear what the public thinks of the ordinance.
"After the meeting the City Council is going to digest all their comments and ... decide what direction to take," Corley said. "If there's overwhelming opposition we will have to take time to reconsider our position."
The Council will not vote on the ordinance on Thursday. If and when a vote does happen, Johnson remains doubtful about whether the anti-N-word legislation will pass, and even more skeptical about how it will be enforced.
"Right now I'm kind of skeptical about it passing," he said. "Think about this -- if a poor person has to pay a fine, if they don't have the money, does that mean they have to go to jail? These things have not been thought through."
Treece has a hard time envisioning a world with banned words. As long as the First Amendment is part of the Constitution, he doesn't see how Corley's ordinance can be enforced.
"I can't even imagine what kind of police you'd have walking around saying, 'What did you mean by that?'" he said. "To enforce that law is just asking for trouble because it can't be upheld."