Civil Liberties

Philadelphia Mayor: Talking About Race = 'Incitement'


Philadelphia, consistently one of the best city magazines in the country, has an anxiety-ridden cover piece out entitled "Being White in Philly." In it, author Robert Huber confesses to his physical sense of unease in crime-ridden neighborhoods, tries to coax a bunch of white Philadelphians to talk openly about race (very few do so directly), and comes up with inoffensive observations like this:

What gets examined publicly about race is generally one-dimensional, looked at almost exclusively from the perspective of people of color. Of course, it is black people who have faced generations of discrimination and who deal with it still. But our public discourse ignores the fact that race—particularly in a place like Philadelphia—is also an issue for white people. Though white people never talk about it.

Everyone might have a race story, but few whites risk the third-rail danger of speaking publicly about race, given the long, troubled history of race relations in this country and even more so in this city. Race is only talked about in a sanitized form, when it's talked about at all, with actual thoughts and feelings buried, which only ups the ante. Race remains the elephant in the room, even on the absurd level of who holds the door to enter a convenience store.

Read the whole thing for testimony from people trying to cope with a damaged modern city. Then sit back and wonder at Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter's attempt to stifle free speech, as transmitted in a letter about the article to the Philadelphia Human Rights Commission:

While I fully recognize that constitutional protections afforded the press are intended to protect the media from censorship by the government, the First Amendment, like other constitutional rights, is not an unfettered right, and notwithstanding the First Amendment, a publisher has a duty to the public to exercise its role in a responsible way. I ask the Commission to evaluate whether the "speech" employed in this essay is not the reckless equivalent of "shouting 'fire!' in a crowded theater," its prejudiced, fact-challenged generalizations an incitement to extreme reaction.

Appreciate the scare-quotes there, Nutter.

UCLA First Amendment scholar Eugene Volokh responds:

The implication — which I think is very strong — that the "speech" is indeed unprotected by the First Amendment under the "incitement" exception is absolutely wrong: Under Brandenburg v. Ohio and Hess v. Indiana, the speech in the article is clearly protected. […] And it's quite troubling, I think, when a mayor (who has power over, among others, the Police Department) suggests that the expression of opinions that he disapproves of about race is constitutionally unprotected.

Read the rest of Volokh's critique here. And since we're on the 10th year anniversary of the Iraq War, let's  walk down memory lane when the pro-war types were misusing the dependably awful fire-in-a-theater analogy to complain about press coverage of Abu Ghraib.


Rue Landau, the Human Relations Committee's executive director, agreed with the mayor's concerns regarding what she called, "the racial insensitivity and perpetuation of harmful stereotypes portrayed in the Philadelphia Magazine piece." […]

Tom McGrath, the magazine's editor, told Fox News he is very concerned that the government is investigating his publication.

"I find it chilling that he now wants to use the government to censor a news outlet," he said. "As a journalist – as someone who thinks free speech is really important – I find that really, really troubling."