The Volokh Conspiracy

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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.