Zsa Zsa and the Litigation Explosion
Ignore Politically Correct Speech and You'll Pay Dearly
OCTOBER 01, 1994 by RALPH R. REILAND
Mr. Reiland teaches economics at Robert Morris College in Pittsburgh, and is the owner of Amel’s Restaurant in the same city.
This time it’s big trouble for Zsa Zsa Gabor, worse than when she slapped the Hollywood cop and was sentenced to work at the women’s shelter. Now, for a verbal faux pas, a California jury says she must fork over a big slice of what she’s earned since World War I in all those movies and marriages. For telling a German magazine that fellow actress Elke Sommer is a Hollywood has-been who loafs in sleazy bars and makes hand-knit sweaters to support herself, Ms. Gabor owes $3.3 million.
In less litigious times, before the tort explosion, we could have expected a volley back from Ms. Elke about ancient Hungarian windbags, and that would’ve been it. No government involvement, no trial, no houses confiscated, and no gravy train for the lawyers. Not a cent was transferred from W. C. Fields when he called Charlie Chaplin a “—- of a —— ballet dancer.”
The problem with Zsa Zsa is that she totally ignored new political correctness, and now she has to pay. She had no idea that the First Amendment’s “no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” had been increasingly loaded down with exemptions, and that zealous politicians and bureaucrats had enacted jackpot penalties to muzzle the outrageous and eradicate faux pas. Stars of the silver screen are now supposed to talk like law clerks.
At the L.A. Times, there’s a new 19-page list of words that are officially off-limits to reporters, lest they might hurt somebody’s feelings. Banned are Dutch treat, gypped, welshing (all stereotypes of Euros), plus Chinese fire drill, ghetto, inner city, powwow, illegal alien, admitted homosexual, queer, hillbilly, white trash, hick, lame, deaf, handicapped, babe, co-ed, divorcee, bra-burner, and gal. Also unprintable is the Kaffir Lily (a botanical slur against South Africans) and Canucks (except on the sports page). Words not fully censored, but warned against, at the L.A. Times are stepmother, WASP, mailman, male nurse, and man-made. Reporters at the Washington Post are warned about using oriental, woman lawyer, and Red China.
The Iowa City Community School District has a no-no list for Halloween costumes. The district’s Equity Affirmative Action Advisory Committee suggests that kids not dress as hobos, old men, old women, witches, devils, Indians, slaves, Africans, gypsies, or Nazis. Instead, Marian Coleman, Equity Director for the district, recommends the tykes go door-to-door as Abe Lincoln and Robin Hood (showing her lack of sensitivity to folks who can’t handle one more politician or egalitarian with his hand out). Ms. Coleman explains that the school makes costume suggestions because the district doesn’t want to get sued for providing a “hostile environment” for children.
At Harvard Law School, Professor Alan Dershowitz laments, “These days I will not teach the subject of rape without having a recording. One woman actually tried to bring sexual harassment charges against me for the way in which I teach rape . . . . People are really losing a lot, in terms of their education, when teachers are frightened away from teaching controversial subjects.”
Fear of litigation has made it increasingly difficult to find volunteers to work with children. With nobody immune from accusation, “Every year it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack to find enough coaches,” says Richard Walker, national spokesman for the Boy Scouts of America. “What you are seeing is sexual abuse hysteria,” states Dr. Richard Gardner, Professor of Child Psychology at Columbia University. “People are running scared. You can’t touch kids anymore.”
“The idea that our individual lives and the nation’s life can and should be risk-free has grown to be an obsession, driven far and deep into American attitudes,” cautioned Henry Fairlie in The New Republic several years ago. “Indeed, the desire for a risk-free society is one of the most debilitating influences in America today, progressively enfeebling the economy with a mass of safety regulations and a widespread fear of liability rulings, and threatening to create an un-buoyant and uninventive society.”
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville predicted a “new kind of servitude” where a “supreme power covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which government is the shepherd.”