New Zealand Law Society - Dylan’s use of N-word in 70s song is okay, say BSA

Dylan’s use of N-word in 70s song is okay, say BSA

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The Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) has found that the broadcast of the song Hurricane by Bob Dylan on Coast FM which uses a derogatory word did not breach broadcasting standards. But it has warned broadcasters to exercise caution and recognise that the word, in some contexts, can be offensive.

The 1975 song contains the lines “To the white folks who watched he was a revolutionary bum/ And to the black folks he was just a crazy nigger”, which the complainant considered to be “offensive, racist and unacceptable”.

The BSA acknowledged that the word is highly offensive and derogatory.  

However, it did not uphold the complaint under the good taste and decency and discrimination and denigration standards due to a range of contextual factors. These include the historical significance of the song.

The track is about Rubin "The Hurricane" Carter, an American middleweight boxer who unsuccessfully fought for the world title in 1964. Carter was wrongfully convicted of murder and later released following a petition of habeas corpus after spending almost 20 years in prison.

“The song itself has social and historical significance and tells a story of racial injustice and inequality experienced by African Americans in the 1960s,” the BSA stated in its decision. “It could be argued that the song itself is an example of the power of the right to freedom of expression. The language and expressions used is integral to the narrative of the story told through the song.”

Other contextual factors include the songwriter himself, who is well-known for using his music to address issues of social injustice and inequality, and the well-established audience expectations of Coast FM.

In making its decision, the BSA acknowledged its role to reflect community standards and noted recent research showed a significant portion of the public find the use of the word in broadcasting unacceptable.

“We do not condone the use of this word in every day usage – it is powerful and offensive.”

In making its decision the BSA warns broadcasters to exercise caution and recognise that in many contexts this word may cause significant harm.

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