Free Speech

"The New York Times and Modern Blasphemy"


An article by Jonathan Zimmerman (Washington Monthly); here's an excerpt:

In Monty Python's classic 1979 satirical film about Jesus, Life of Brian, a man is stoned for saying a blasphemous word. One of his accusers says the word, too, and the crowd turns on him. Then an elderly authority declares that nobody should ever say the word, but of course he says it as well. And he gets stoned, too.

I've been thinking about this hilarious scene during the dead-serious virtual stoning of veteran New York Times journalist Donald R. McNeil Jr., who as you've probably heard by now, resigned from the paper last week after reports surfaced of him using the N-word during a Times-sponsored trip for high school students in Peru in 2019. Like the accusers in Life of Brian, McNeil said the word during a discussion of when and how the word should be penalized. But when it comes to blasphemous terms, context doesn't count.

That's the best way to understand the McNeil stoning: as a case of blasphemy. Whereas Americans today probably associate that term with countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, it has an ugly history in the United States. And I fear we're reviving it to revile those who violate ever-changing norms regardless of their intent….

For Prof. Randall Kennedy's and my draft article on similar issues in universities (and especially law schools), see The New Taboo: Quoting Epithets in the Classroom and Beyond.

NEXT: The UVA 2021 Originalist Symposium

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  1. On the off chance that the remaining members of Monty Python don’t read the Volokh Conspiracy, I’m going to go ahead and point out that the Life of Brian was very much *not* a movie about Jesus.

    1. Wait till Biggus Dickus hears of this!

    2. He did have a cameo in it, though.

      1. Around tea-time.

    3. I read that among McNeil’s 2019 sins were that he was grumpy, didn’t accept the concept of white supremacy, and suggested that a lot of black teenagers get in trouble because they commit crimes. I don’t know his position on climate change.

      There is one moral here: even in 2019 it was a mistake to think that it was a good idea to chaperone a group of teenagers whose families read the New York Times and can afford to send them on $5,500 summer boondoggles.

  2. So, I read the part above and I was justifiably outraged.

    Then I did a quick bit of digging and found the original article from the Daily Beast about the trip to Peru. It was alleged that it was not just the statement using the “n” word; it was a number of issues that made the students with him “uncomfortable,” including saying “horrible things about black teenagers” and a lack of respect shown during the traditional ceremonies with indigenous healers and shamans. Parents complained about his conduct to the Times after the trip.

    Apparently, he was originally reprimanded after the complaints in 2019, but when the allegations came to light and were publicized at the beginning of 2021, they lingered and he was eventually dismissed.

    I would say that there is a dispute of fact as to whether he was dismissed because of using the word in a “teaching context” (as he claims in a letter accepting dismissal) or if there were repeated issues (as were claimed by the parents).

    While I do agree that we can be overly sensitive to many of these issues, I don’t think it is correct, at this point, to paint this in quite this light.

    1. I wish I could believe these reports. However, I’ve seen repeatedly that entire stories were concocted whole cloth to justify firing someone.

      It’s such a common issue in firings that you are suggested to only communicate with HR in email so you have records, and record all phone and in-person conversations.

      1. Maybe!

        On the other hand, do you know what else you see all the time? People leave jobs and be allowed to say that the reason they are leaving is less than the actual reason. “Spending time with family.” Or being let go because “It just didn’t work out,” and not because the employer suspected them of embezzling money from the firm.

        I wasn’t on the trip. But the allegations were a lot more than just “clueless guy used the word once in an attempt to understand.”

        It doesn’t make them true. But it also doesn’t mean that the self-serving letter he wrote is true either. Point is- we don’t know.

        1. Point is that not all of us have to accept the hijacking of language, including prohibiting some, depending upon their color, from using certain words.

          That is the story.

          1. Maybe.

            But if that isn’t what happened, maybe that’s not best example.

            It’s like saying, “I’m against rape, you know, like in the Duke Lacrosse case.”

            It’s best to defend principles with appropriate examples.

            1. Maybe this is leading to an attempt to resurrect the reputation of former and disgraced Judge Kozinski?

        2. If the allegations you are referring to from the trip in 2019 are true, and supposedly they were raised to the NYT in 2019, and if they justify firing him, then they should have fired him in 2019. Firing him in 2021 over it is bullshit whether those accusations are true or not.

          1. Not necessarily. Ignoring any possible union issues …

            Things change. From the employer’s perspective, what usually matters isn’t the conduct, as much as the public perception.

            “Parents complaint to the Times, no one else knows” is a reprimand.

            “Media reporting that Times reporter was saying ‘horrible things about black teenagers’ and being insensitive to indigenous people on a cultural trip” is a little different.

            You might not like that, but it’s what employers care about.

          2. “Firing him in 2021 over it is bullshit whether those accusations are true or not.”

            They were not going to fire him, but reversed course after receiving a letter signed by 150 employees saying that “Our community is outraged and in pain,”

            1. If only there were some objective way to distinguish people who are outraged an in pain, from people who are a baying mob intent on causing it.

              Actually, they may actually be outraged, people can be outraged over the stupidest things. If they’re in pain over this, I suggest therapy, maybe drugs.

    2. “I would say that there is a dispute of fact as to whether he was dismissed because of using the word in a “teaching context” (as he claims in a letter accepting dismissal) or if there were repeated issues (as were claimed by the parents).”

      A dispute with who?

      The NYT said that they fired him because “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,”.

      Then they referred readers to McNeil’s letter, where he claims he was fired for using the word innocuously.

      1. I’d tell you to read what I wrote, but why bother. How’s that name working for you?

        1. If his name were accurate he would be a very unfortunate fellow.

          However it’s not. Which means it reflects his ignorance and insecurity.

        2. “How’s that name working for you?”

          Love it, thanks for asking. The delicious tears are a bonus.

          1. No worries! I mean, we all laugh at you so much we cry, so you you’re going to get a lot of deliciousness!

            Too bad you’re never getting a substantive reply, but enjoy the mockery.

            1. “I mean, we all laugh at you so much we cry…”

              All of you? Is this like a Kirkland Arty-Ray thing?

              “Too bad you’re never getting a substantive reply…”

              Didn’t expect one. You don’t have one. My comment speaks for itself.

              1. “Didn’t expect one.”

                Good. You never should. You will get the exact level of substantive conversation you deserve.

                How is that name working for you????

                1. I appreciate the context you provided, and perhaps the guy did deserve to be fired for reasons I wasn’t previously aware of. But if the Times is claiming that they only fired him for using a specific word (in an apparently understandable context), and not for being a dick in general, then it’s still worth criticizing the Times given their stated reasons, don’t you think?

                  To kind of mangle your Duke Lacrosse team analogy, what if it turned out that those guys were horrible human beings, and perhaps engaged in other criminal activity to the point where maybe the world would be better off if they went to jail, would that mean we couldn’t criticize a lying accuser and a system that treated them unfairly based on the specifics of what they were actually being prosecuted for?

                  I understand that it’s not a perfect analogy. Maybe you can rightfully claim that if not for the other dickish activity, the Times wouldn’t have fired him for the innocuous use of one word. In which case the Times is still guilty of being disingenuous, and knowing that they are living in a culture where the politically expedient reason to give for firing someone is the one they gave.

                  In any event isn’t there still something in here worth being annoyed about, even if the journalist is an unsympathetic character?

    3. “…saying ‘horrible things about black teenagers’…”

      “From 7 p.m. Friday, May 29 [2020], through 5 a.m. Monday, June 1 [2020], 25 people were killed [in Chicago], with another 85 wounded by gunfire, according to data maintained by the Chicago Sun-Times.”

      Reality is that there are *some* horrible Black teenagers — murder is a horrible thing and it’s not unicorns that are discharging those firearms. Just sayin….

      1. “I’m not a racist because OJ is a murderer,” says Dr. Ed.

        1. This comment section resembles Fox News, as described by the Simpsons:

          “Fox News: Not Racist.

          But #1 With Racists!”

          1. Only #1 with white racists, I’d assume.

            Univision would be #1 with hispanic racists, BET is probably #1 among black racists, and so forth.

        2. It is racist to ignore the BLACK victims….

    4. I think this is likely to be a big part of it.

      At the very least, the NYT wasn’t willing to defend him because of the larger complaints.

      Likely that none of them were really willing to dig up all the real dirt, so they found a convenient excuse to fire him, one that also let him save face.

      “Resign for this trivial reason, or we’ll have to publicize the real allegations.”

      1. Quite possibly.

        The point is, we don’t know. The original allegations from 2019 were quite a lot more than just what is being bandied about now.

        OTOH, there are instances like David Shor, who was terminated for (correctly) tweeting that non-violent protests are better for increasing the vote than violent protests. So …

        Just not sure I’d use this as the prime example unless I was reasonably certain it wasn’t going to come back and bite me in the butt. It might end up aging as well as EV’s defense of Judge Kozinski’s sex joke server.

        1. That’s always the challenge with many of these stories.

          I agree in principle, but maybe this isn’t the best example.

          I oppose capital punishment, but don’t expect me to lose sleep over the specific Trump executions of 2020.

          Shor is a great rallying cry, NYT eating their own… maybe not.

  3. In our advanced society we just “cancel” people by denying them the ability to work a job, pay bills, quietly enjoy personal recreation, and run them out of public accommodations. There is nothing wrong with this either as long as the victim is on the right (usually denoted with the dog whistle indicator “white supremacist”).

    1. Much neater than the use of La Guillotina, particularly in the post AIDS era with human blood being considered a Biohazard under universal protocol mandates…

    2. This is not happening.
      You’re stitching together a bunch of separate anecdotes and speculation with ‘and.’

      Why do you have such a mania to reach for persecution?

      1. Come on Sarcastro. We all know you are not dumb. Insincere? Yes. Gaslighter? Sure. But not dumb. You darn well know this stuff is happening all the time across the nation and it is because of intolerant PC snobs. I’m sure you think it is funny because it isn’t “your guys” who are getting the shaft, but just keep in mind what goes around comes around.

        1. Pro tip for decent people: If you refrain from bigoted, stupid, grossly offensive, old-timey statements, the ‘goes around comes around’ will not apply to you.

          1. Oh, really?

            What alternate dimension of reality do you inhabit?

        2. denying them the ability to work a job, pay bills, quietly enjoy personal recreation, and run them out of public accommodations.

          You darn well know this stuff is happening all the time across the nation and it is because of intolerant PC snobs.

          Nope, I do not know that. How would I? You’re just being melodramatic.

          1. You’re denying people get fired? Lose the ability to use banking services? Get accosted in public places?

            Really, you’re denying this happens?

            1. Sarcastro once said he lived in DC. Guess he has now moved the State of Denial.

  4. He worked for the New York Times.
    He deserves it.

    1. Yes. Because the NYTimes is a racist institution, thus everyone that works there is a racist, or at the very least enables racism. We know that because regardless of context, it is never ok to say the word that begins with the letter after M.

      But The New York Times has used that word at least 6481 times by its own count.

      1. Do the obsolete losers genuinely believe ‘some — most — people have made mistakes, so we get to continue to be bigots without accountability until we are replaced’ to be a winning argument in modern America?

        Would it not be easier to try to improve and become better people?

        (Jackson Browne wrote most of that one, maybe all but one — important — line)

        1. What the hell are you going on about? Are you trying to tie your arguments around the super sounds of the 70s? Leave the DJing to Steven Wright’s character in Reservoir Dogs.

  5. Quoted epithets do not cause injury and nobody thinks they do. It reminds me of the McCarthy era in which people likewise had their livelihoods destroyed who failed to tiptoe gently through certain minefields of expression, and to defend someone who committed an inadvertent misstep was to expose oneself to the same charges. This also happened during the reign of terror of the French Revolution, and during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It will run its course after some influential people stand up to protest. Any guesses as to how long that will take?

    1. Donald Trump stood up to protest. Look what happened to him…

    2. Artie Ray got cancelled at this right-wing blog for making fun of conservatives. I have been censored repeatedly for using terms such as “c-p succ-r” and “sl@ck-j@w.” How many of the clingers whimpering now about ‘cancel culture’ objected to Prof. Volokh’s viewpoint-controlled censorship?

      You guys are losing your relevance in the culture as American society progresses against conservative wishes and efforts. You don’t like it. There is nothing you can do about it except complain and cry.

      That is the entire story here. Disaffected, sad clingers.

      1. ALK : I have been censored repeatedly for using terms such as “c-p succ-r” and “sl@ck-j@w.”
        The spam that infests the rest of Reason is remarkably absent on the Conspiracy; a most excellent thing. Like the ‘work at home’ and ‘Google pays __’, you get censored for spamming. Quit advertising your services and the posts remain; but until then may the blessed censors continue their good work.

  6. If Huck Finn said it, it is okay by me.

  7. All PC is case. Institutions are firing people for uttering a word in fear of ruinous litigation. The lawyer profession is the most toxic occupation in our nation. It must be crushed to save the country.

  8. Massachusetts General Laws — 272 MGL 36:
    “Whoever wilfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior.”

    My point in mentioning this statute is that I have always considered blasphemy to be about power and not hurt feelings or sense of offense. Short of total mind control, control over what another person can say is the greatest power one could possibly have over another — and as words are closely related to thoughts, you’re actually controlling what the person can think.

    Crucifying people for using verboten words was — and is — about power. It was about power when Massachusetts was a theocracy (and it was one) and it’s about power now. It’s about the power of bullies to control others, be they Puritan Ministers or Social Justice Warriors.

    1. “It was about power when Massachusetts was a theocracy (and it was one) and it’s about power now.”

      I agree with the sentiment but would change the word power to profits.

      If McDonald’s had a manager spouting off (insert your favorite disparaging stereotype) to customers then she/he would be immediately fired.

      Not sure what happened with this specific story, but any/every corporation now-a-days is hypersensitive to these situations.

      1. “If McDonald’s had a manager spouting off (insert your favorite disparaging stereotype) to customers then she/he would be immediately fired.”

        That’s still about power — the power to make McDonalds hypersensitive to offending those with power.

        1. “That’s still about power — the power to make McDonalds hypersensitive to offending those with power.”

          That’s always been true. Think of traditional employer issues (for example, prohibitions on certain styles of dress, or hair types, or piercings, etc.). Or think in terms of employees angering large clients of an employer.

          To be very blunt: this is always the way that is has been. The difference is that some people are unhappy that the standards of what employers consider (aka, the groups with power) has changed somewhat.

          That’s all.

          (This isn’t a normative issue, by the why- it’s descriptive. This is the way it is, and has been. Special pleading now that employers are more interested in keeping different groups happy does seem interesting. 🙂 ).

  9. I wonder how long it will be before young people are afraid to use _any_ word that starts with the letter ‘n’, because it’s forbidden to tell them which word starting with ‘n’ is forbidden for them to use.

    1. We’ve already essentially banned the word “niggardly.”

      1. What will happen to those African N countries with one “g”?

        1. It’s not as funny as you think.

          When was the last time you ordered a Negroni?

          1. Or Niger Thistle (Guizotia Abyssinica) — a bird seed that finches particularly love.

          2. Oh oh. I am in big trouble now!

            1. I know!

              The other day I ordered one up from an African-American bartender.

              And he glared at me. I asked, “What’s the issue?”

              He replied, “Only a fool orders it up. Everyone knows a Negroni is best enjoyed on the rocks.”

              1. When a guy is right, he’s right.
                I also had a law school classmate named Negroni. She was white. Still is, I think.

        2. The State Department should have a word with those jokers.

      2. Language changing? Oh noes!

  10. Apparently a times reporter doxxed another reporter who was covering the story, with the NYT falsely claiming that it was inadvertent.

    I wonder what else they lie about.

    1. How many pages are they printing today?

  11. The NYT uses the slur itself regularly, most recently on Feb 2

  12. New York Times is a jewish rag. It was famous for disinformation reporting when Stalin was starving Ukranians to death for opposing communism. The American Jewish establishment did not the goy to know that non-jews were being exterminated by Bolshevik jews over differences of political ideology. Jews can’t do their thing if there is a free press to call out the horrendous acts of the chosen vermin upon society. New York times can take a shower in Zyklon B. By the way, NYT got a pulitzer prize for the accurate reporting denying the Holodomor. Totally a jew game.

    1. Hey Pavel!

      On Monday I wondered how you managed to successfully get through life with your “particular” worldview (e.g. not mistake a wingnut for a walnut and try to eat the wingnut).

      Some of our fellow commenters replied:

      “I doubt he’s anything like this in real life, it’s probably just a pose” and “Having had to deal with real antisemites, I can say with certainty that this ain’t one.”

      Can you prove them wrong and (and me and you right!) that you’re a total, worthless scumbag?

      1. Apedad — how many non-Jews even know what the word “goy” means? (I had to look it up…)

        “Goy” is not a word that an anti-semite would ever use — not only is it not in his vocabulary but he’s not going to use a Jewish term to define himself.

        And this time, there isn’t even a logical path in his post.

        1. It is an ancient Hebrew word. The plural is goyim.

          1. Since it’s a slur


            then maybe we should refer to it as “g__,” but that sounds like you’re saying “god,” so maybe “__y” or “[anti-gentile slur].”

            1. “Goy” is not a slur. It’s simply the Hebrew word for a non-Jew. Literally, it means “nation” (much as the word “gentile” is derived from the Latin “gens,” meaning clan, people, or nation).

              I suppose there may be some Jews who are so contemptuous of gentiles that the word “goy” drips with hatred from their mouths, but even if that’s so, the word is not inherently a slur.

              1. I linked to a Jewish periodical edited by people who seem very sensitive to such things. It doesn’t mean they’re right, of course, I cited them to set up my joke about not using the word “goy.” Oops, I said it.

              2. Hatred?
                hen you need a shabbos goy, you need him. Hatred does not enter into the equation.

                1. Especially if you want to fire a space laser on a Saturday.

                  1. What in the world is this space laser BS?

              3. Seamus — a genuine antisemite would be so antisemitic that he wouldn’t use *any* Hebrew word *because* it was a Hebrew word.

                1. “Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past”

        2. Apedad — how many non-Jews even know what the word “goy” means? (I had to look it up…)

          Dr. Ed, a free hint: extrapolating from your own ignorance is not a good methodology.

          1. One of the Rothschilds once said there came a time in an financier’s life when the difference between closing a deal and losing it was knowing a little Yiddish. Then he turned his Jewish Space Laser on his listener and vaporized him.

            1. That’s a tough call because that *is* funny — but on a serious note, is Rothschield & Co still even a “Jewish” bank anymore? It’s been a couple centuries, lots of time for idiot sons-in-law to screw up, and they have jumped onto the diversity bandwagon:

              More importantly, what percentage of world finance do they control — as opposed to, say JP Morgan Chase bank — which is no longer a WASP-only bank. Or Bank of America which definitely isn’t owned by Italian immigrants, which it was when it was established in 1904.

    2. Good Lord, not Petrovich again. He’s as tedious as Rev. Artie.

      1. Sure they’re not the same? Two sides of the same schizophrenic?
        Both seem to have the same proclivity to vomit the most offensive drivel they can without quite making a coherent thought.

  13. Sorry … what is this mysterious “N-word”?

    1. ” Sorry … what is this mysterious “N-word”? ”

      Ask Prof. Volokh. He would be eager to tell you.

  14. It’s the NY Times. They lie.

    Recently in a TV interview, clips of violent or aggressive rhetoric from Democrats were shown to Senator Mike Lee. Mike Lee responded with forgiveness. “These are outgrowths of the same natural impulse that exist from time to time among anyone in this business and in many other businesses. Look, everyone makes mistakes. Everyone is entitled to a mulligan once in a while.”

    NY Times headline? ““Mike Lee Suggests Trump Should Get a ‘Mulligan’ for Capitol Riot Day Speech,” ”


    1. NYTimes…. another N-word

  15. From now on, no one is to cancel anyone until I blow this whistle! Even if they do say nigger!

    1. Your (lack of) civility standard is showing, Prof. Volokh.

      Which is fine . . . until you invoke them against someone whose views you disfavor for being insufficiently conservative.

      And even that is fine, although it marks a principle-free hypocrite and frequent imposer of viewpoint-driven censorship.

      1. Lol. Kirkland dropping giant figurative stone.

        1. I enjoy holding clingers accountable. And mocking them. It is easy, important, and fun.

  16. It’s one word, yes I wish I could use it to refer to my friends and while rapping…but I can’t. Luckily “brother” replaces the n word very easily in hip hop and “dog” replaces the n word in most friendly interactions with my homeys.

    1. See also “playa.”

  17. These issues couldn’t happen to a better publication. Lots of Robespierres to get through before this idiocy ends.

    1. They haven’t gotten to the Robespierres yet, they’re still working through the Girondins.

  18. Any word on what happened to the student who originally asked McNeil the question that contained the dreaded N-word? Was that student punished? Did other parents complain about that student? Or are we waiting until that student gets accepted to college so that they can have him or her expelled?

  19. The fundamental question Bostock asks is “if a black person dis the same thing, would it result in the same consequences?”

    If it wouldn’t, then firings like this have nothing to do with anything the person said. And suggesting there is a relationship grossly mischaracterizes the motivations involved. They are based solely on the firee’s race. And accurate reporting means they should be reported as such.

    To report flimsy pretexts for racial discrimination as if they were actual reasons is to aid, abet, endorse, and encourage racial discrimiantion.

  20. “The word dog never has bitten anybody” said Aristoteles

  21. A correspondent asked my meaning in using 13%-ers. I responded, “POC.”. He asked, “PO Crap?”. I blew coffee onto my virtual keyboard. I tried to euphemistically avoid blashemy and stumbled into further dysphemy.

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