Two New York City firefighters and a New York City police officer who were fired after their participation in a racist spectacle in 1998 are suing to get their jobs back. It’s a disturbing case that tests the limits of free speech.
On September 7, 1998, during a Labor Day Parade through the predominantly white neighborhood of Broad Channel, Queens, firefighters Robert Steiner and Jonathan Walters and Officer Joseph Locurto were videotaped riding a float which carried a banner reading: “Black to the Future.” The men were wearing black wigs and blackface makeup, tossing watermelon rinds to the crowd; at one point, Walters hung off the back of the float — grotesquely parodying the murder of James Byrd earlier that year in Jasper, Texas.
When the videotape came to the attention of then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, he announced furiously that the three men would be fired; they eventually were fired, but only after an administrative hearing determined their guilt. Now, they are suing the city to get their jobs back, claiming Giuliani’s vow that they’d never again work for the city unless the “Supreme Court of the United States tells us to put them back on” prejudiced the hearing which determined their fates.
The New York Civil Liberties Union has weighed in on the case, arguing that the men, whose job performances betrayed no history of racism, were wrongfully terminated for an off duty activity, in violation of their First Amendment right to free speech.
As disgusting as the Broad Channel incident was, the men should get their jobs back. Not because they deserve sympathy, but because the issue is larger than the individual fortunes of the three plaintiffs — and I say this because I have a personal stake here. If they can be fired, so, in theory, can I.
Like Locurto, Steiner and Walters, I’m a public employee — a professor at a branch of the State University of New York. And last year I published a novel called Africa Speaks which features a black narrator — for a white author, the literary equivalent of working in blackface — and which portrays black characters in highly unflattering ways. The story has, to my mind, a serious message: that hip hop encourages in young black people a self-destructive us-against-them mindset in which pathological behavior is equated with black authenticity. Yet the book contains elements of broad parody and, judging by customer reviews on Amazon.com, has mortally offended a significant number of readers.
The question is how do you draw a distinction between what I wrote and what Locurto, Steiner and Walters did. Intention, the obvious answer, is notoriously difficult to gauge; I cannot demonstrate that I didn’t set out simply to insult blacks. Rather, I can only hope that readers perceive the book’s point. I’d like to think, in any event, that my job security doesn’t rest on mere perception but on whether, in fact, I do my job well. I’d also like to think I’m free to write whatever I want, good, bad or indifferent, without self-censoring because I happen to be a public employee.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Locurto, Steiner and Walters are racist jerks. Some readers have inferred as much about me. As long as we keep doing our jobs, however, we are guaranteed the right to be jerks on our own time.