Reflections on Tracy Morgan, Other Celebrities and the “R-Word”

This week, when The Arc staff learned of Tracy Morgan’s comments in a recent comedy show in New York City, we knew we had to respond. Not because we are against free speech – as an organization dedicated to protecting the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, we wholeheartedly support freedom of speech and other constitutional rights. We responded because we don’t like to see hateful, hurtful speech aimed at people with disabilities.

Tracy Morgan is a very successful comedian who made a joke that he thought was funny in the moment, and certainly anyone has a right to laugh at whatever jokes he or she wants. Some people think we’re being oversensitive, and that’s understandable. Mr. Morgan has more leeway because of what he does – making people laugh – and that means he pushes boundaries and social norms. We can appreciate that, but what we don’t think he realized is that the language he used is hurtful to many, many people. And it’s The Arc’s job to stand up for them.

This isn’t about free speech, defining comedy or free publicity as much as it’s about making sure society treats people with disabilities with respect.

In the last year, we’ve called out NBA star LeBron James and former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel for using similar language. And each time, it has sparked a lively conversation about free speech and human rights. We’re thrilled to be a part of this debate because these public figures (and everyone else in the conversation) can share with all of society why the “r-word” and other derogatory terms directed at people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are not okay.

People have a right to express themselves. And we at The Arc can take a joke, but we are compelled to stand up when it crosses into territory that hurts the people we represent.