Ohio State law professor Christopher M. Fairman offered his take Sunday about the controversy over the use of the word “retard.” Fairman said he would not be signing a petition championed by the Special Olympics to ban the use of “the r-word,” which is not surprising considering he is the author of this book.
There were two main points I took away from Fairman’s essay in The Washington Post:
- “Words themselves are not the culprit; the meaning we attach to them is, and such meanings change dramatically over time and across communities”
- “Invariably, negative connotations materialize around whatever new word is used. …This illustrates one of the recurring follies of speech restriction: While there may be another word to use, a negative connotation eventually is found. Offense – both given and taken – is inevitable.”
Fairman also notes courts have found government-backed “speech codes” unconstitutional.
Reaction to Fairman’s essay has been strong, including opposing views from Post columnist Michael Gerson and Timothy Shriver, president of the Special Olympics. And perhaps the most prominent opponent of the word “retard” lately has been Sarah Palin.
Washington Post readers had a chance to respond to Fairman as well during an online chat. What do you think of his position? Should “the r-word” be considered on par with “the n-word”?