During the last couple of years and particularly during the last Mayor’s election, I’ve thought a lot about the differences between satire and hate speech. Famously, the late televangelist Jerry Falwell sued Larry Flynt and Hustler Magazine in the late 1980s for libel, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress after Hustler printed a satirical ad that suggested Falwell’s first sexual experience was with his own mother. Initially, a jury rejected Falwell’s charge of libel, but agreed with him on the charges of invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress, awarding Falwell $150,000 in damages.
Flynt appealed, and the case made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled in Flynt’s favor. At its core, the case centered on Falwell’s role as a public figure and whether or not Hustler‘s parody ad met the definition of “actual malice,” as established in the landmark case New York Times Company v. Sullivan (1964). When you’re a public figure, it’s much more difficult to prove a defamation or libel case. The burden is on the plaintiff to prove “that the publisher of the statement in question knew that the statement was false or acted in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity,” hence the term “actual malice.” The Sullivan case was hugely important, better safeguarding the press to challenge, criticize, and satirize elected officials and public figures.
In 1964, no one could have possibly anticipated the future ubiquity of the Internet or the ways in which today’s technology allows and empowers practically anyone with a computer and a modem the ability to share their opinions with the entire world. It’s been said before: The internet is the most important development in the history of human communication since Guttenberg’s printing press. Because of its recent emergence, we are still attempting to understand the full importance and long-term impact of the internet. In the beginning of the movie The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg’s girlfriend tells him, “Everything on the internet is written in ink.” Although it’s not entirely true, it’s an apt and pithy metaphor, one of the best I’ve heard.
I’ve been online since I was seven years old, well before there were chat rooms or blogs. In those early days, people connected with one another through bulletin boards; it wasn’t an anarchic free-for-all, but certainly, it was unorganized, unstructured, and completely unmoderated. Most kids who were online back in the late 1980s were more interested in learning code; however, coding has never been an interest of mine. I was more interested in having a conversation with people. I spent hours posting questions on bulletin boards about religion and politics. For a kid who wasn’t always able to join my brother and my friends outside, the internet provided me with the ability to connect with a much larger world.
Five years ago, when I created this website, I never thought it would last for more than a few months. I wanted to share a few of my opinions on my hometown, and to my surprise, people actually took notice.
As anyone who knows me well can attest, I’ve never been afraid to speak my mind, even when it gets me in trouble or causes controversy. I’ve always attempted to be respectful and purposeful, but I’m definitely not perfect. Still, I know that if you’re going to dish it out, then, as the adage goes, you better be able to take it. I like to believe I’ve handled criticism with some degree of aplomb, though it hasn’t always been easy. I may have thick skin, but I’m not made of kevlar.
If you’ve read this site during the last two years, you probably know that I’ve earned the ire of a man named Greg Aymond, a lawyer and former member of the Ku Klux Klan who publishes a blog called Central LA Politics. I’ve written far too many responses to him on this blog. Some people tell me to simply ignore him completely. By even mentioning him, they say, I’m giving him exactly what he wants: attention and recognition. I can’t know what motivates someone like Greg Aymond, but again, the internet is written in ink. Greg Aymond has written about me nearly every single week for the last year, sometimes posting as many as four articles a week. When I post something on this site, within a few hours, Greg Aymond usually responds, and more often than not, he distorts my words in order to promote some ridiculous lie about me. I’ve said before, it’s sometimes disconcerting to me. Sometimes, it’s not just weird; it seems creepy and strangely obsessive, particularly when I consider the hours he’s spent changing photographs of me (and others).
Today, in response to my post about my friend and colleague Joe Page, Greg Aymond published his latest depiction of me:
He named the file “Freddy the Gimp.” He explained:
Freddy White, the the best blogger in Cenla, unofficial mouthpiece for Alexandria Mayor Jacques Roy, Publicist for the City of Alexandria who blogs on City time, our resident pinko left-winger, and ofay who has done nothing for real for Black people except mouth off, today attacked Town Talk reporter Bret McCormick and community activist Gayle Underwood for daring to exercise their freedoms of speech.
I call Freddy a gimp and place his photo in a wheelchair because he uses his disability for sympathy (no matter what he says). Freddy was probably hired by City Hall for his liberal ways and his disability. It couldn’t have been for his knowledge or experience because he had none. Many of us, including me, have disabilities, but we do not use them to further our own agendas like Freddy does.
First, obviously, I did not attack anyone’s freedom of speech rights. That’s absurd. I questioned Mr. McCormick’s editorialization, and I pointed out that Ms. Underwood has appeared on Channel Four more than anyone else outside of city government, often to express her own political views.
I’ve been called a “gimp” before, of course. The word has several different definitions, but when it’s hurled at someone with a disability, it’s intended to be an insult, an offensive slur, a word that can be hurtful and dehumanizing. Still, I’ve grown accustomed to Mr. Aymond’s spiteful and blindly hateful name-calling. I would never expect him to understand how the word “gimp” can be an instrument of hatred or how profoundly painful it can be for a ten-year-old boy with cerebral palsy or a sixteen-year-old girl with muscular dystrophy. I know Mr. Aymond intends to be hurtful; likely, he believes that attacking me for being disabled is his best line of attack. It’s pathetic.
Unlike Mr. Aymond, I’ve lived with a disability for my entire life. It does not and has never defined my identity, but it certainly helps inform it. How could it not? Although I don’t want to get into some sort of ad hominem attack, I know this: Today, even for someone confined to a wheelchair, it is possible to adapt; it is possible to live a normal life- to go to school, to make close friends, to become gainfully employed, to get married, and to have kids. But when you’re paralyzed by hatred and anger, you suffer from a disability that is far more devastating than anything else.
Mr. Aymond may claim that he’s simply being satirical, playful; if pressed, he’d probably argue that he has the right to satirize me because he probably thinks of me as a public figure. But make no mistake: This is not satire. It is not playful criticism. It is intended to be personal; it is intended to inflict pain; it is intended to dehumanize me, to reduce me to a slur; and it is intended to discredit my intellect, to make me appear as nothing more than an untalented, unqualified, and unintelligent opportunist who has coasted through life because of the sympathy of others. This isn’t satire; it’s hate speech.