Talk-show host Don Imus has probably figured this out already: As he works through his apology to the Rutgers women's basketball team, he's also defining the line that separates what's acceptable from what's not in public discourse.
In American society, that line moves around, and unfortunately, it's been moving in the direction of ever more crassness and hurtfulness. Talk first, think later – or don't think at all. That's been the pattern with certain celebrities, politicians, media personalities, and other high-profile individuals who set public standards, intentionally or not.
Before Mr. Imus insulted the mostly African-American team with a racial, sexist slur on his show last week, there was former "Seinfeld" actor Michael Richards. He hurled racial epithets at blacks during a stand-up comedy routine. Before that, it was another actor, Mel Gibson, who spewed anti-Semitic insults when stopped for drunken driving. In between was former Virginia Sen. George Allen, who singled out an Indian-American campaign worker with derogatory shorthand.
Those are just the headline grabbers. But every hour, bloggers and others type out nasty stuff on the Internet, which has become quite the vial of vitriol. Cyberbullying, death threats, and personal maligning seem to come easily in a forum where anonymity forgoes accountability.
The First Amendment protects free speech, but not of the yelling-fire-in-a-crowded-theater, libel, or slander kind. Outside the law, society must define how bad is bad.
The context and content of an offensive remark, the insulter's remorse (or lack of it) and acts of contrition, the injured party's reaction, and the public's response all determine when a line is crossed.