UrbaNERD: A very brief history of the right to offend in NYC

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When a federal court ruled in 2006 that the city had the right to fire a cop and two firefighters who were off duty when they participated in a horribly racist episode in Broad Channel in 1998, the New York Times wrote that the case “came to symbolize ethnic divisions in the city under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.”

But it’s more accurate to say that it symbolized the complex debate about freedom of expression that has often played out in New York—reflected most recently in the question of whether cops in uniform had a First Amendment right to turn their back on their boss—and takes on new weight after this week’s Paris massacre.

That no one should be harmed or killed for what they say, write or think is almost too obvious to state. Overwhelmingly, even passionate arguments in New York over how much we get to offend one another rarely end in actual violence. But bloodshed is not a nonexistent threat. In 1970, construction workers attacked anti-war protesters in lower Manhattan. The ultranationalist Meir Kahane was assassinated in 1990 at the Marriott East Side Hotel. And the volunteer firehouse at the center of the 1998 Broad Channel incident did get bomb threats.

More common is the argument over how much offense the offended have to tolerate. The Broad Channel episode framed this question perfectly. Two off-duty firefighters and an off-duty cop were part of a float in a Labor Day parade whose riders wore blackface, prominently displayed fried chicken and re-enacted the dragging death of James Byrd.

The question raised was whether the abhorrent behavior was what cops and firefighters are allowed to do off duty, or something that undermined their ability to represent the city and treat all New Yorkers fairly. In answering it, many New Yorkers found themselves in unusual territory. Mayor Giuliani, who usually supported cops no matter what they did, called for the cop and firefighters to be fired. Norman Siegel, the civil liberties champion who usually assisted critics of Giuliani’s NYPD, said the men should keep their jobs. Al Sharpton weighed in … on the side of the cop.

It’s just one of several episodes in the recent past worth revisiting if you’re planning to spend the weekend contemplating the intricacies of free expression in an inclusive city (before the division championship games, of course). Others include:

We’re sure there’ve been more; comment below to remind us.

Other items you might have missed this week because you were so busy reading City Limits:

  • Next City had an excellent story on the paradox in Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan—namely its reliance on the private market. Some people worry that the market can’t be relied upon to actually provide housing that is affordable. Others actually fret that we’ll end up asking too much of developers.
  • Since Election Day there’s been this idea that de Blasio burned bridges with the Republican state senate when he actively supported Democrats trying to take control of the upper house. Gotham Gazette ran a nice analysis of what de Blasio wants out of Albany—and how likely he is to get it—that put the ’14 races in context. Even if the dislike is now “personal” as much as political, Dean Skelos and company weren’t very likely to do much business with the mayor anyway.
  • Governor Cuomo’s wage board has apparently decided against eliminating the separate and lower minimum wage that exists for tipped workers, opting instead merely to hike that wage from the current $5 or $5.65 to whopping $7 an hour. Worth reading is some of the testimony the board received from activists, business owners and workers. Particularly frank is a submission from Eric Byrd, a pizza delivery driver in Ithaca, that read in part:

I’m here to give you a dose of reality about my attitude and the ramifications to the goals of restaurant owners nationwide. One of those goals is “customer service” … but the reality is I care as little about their customer service numbers as they do on whether I can pay my electric bill on $6 an hour. As an aggregate group, the restaurant industry shows such disdain for the needs of its workers that it inspires this kind of hate. And I assure you: 100 percent of delivery drivers feel exactly as I do.

  • New York City spent more on debt service last year—just over $6 billion—than the entire budgets of eight states, including New Mexico and Vermont. This according to a newly revised history of the city’s debt burden and debt service since 2000 produced by the Independent Budget Office. The debt burden doubled during Mayor Bloomberg’s time—which isn’t to say any of the projects the money funded weren’t necessary, just that the cost of supporting that debt will be an inescapable part of de Blasio’s budgets.
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