A stupid lawsuit

Kia Vaughn says Don Imus ruined her reputation when he called members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos,” but it’s something else entirely that stands to hurt her name: a lawsuit she’s filed seeking money from the shock jock.

The suit on behalf of this star center of the team says “defamatory, sexually denigrating and slanderous statements and comments against the women athletes … were heard, believed and understood by millions of listeners … as factual pronouncements concerning the character, chastity and reputation of the plaintiff.”

Her lawyer, Richard Ancowitz, has been quoted as saying Vaughn “would do anything” to “restore” her “good name.”

“Don Imus referred to my client as an unchaste woman,” he reportedly said. “That was and is a lie.”

How much is being sought in monetary damages? We don’t know, but Imus is worth multimillions, and he is not the only one being named in the suit. There’s also the producer of Imus’ old show, Bernard McGuirk, along with CBS Corp., Viacom Inc., MSNBC, CBS Radio, NBC Universal and Westwood One Radio. We could be talking about a high stack of dollars, although some of them, the lawyer has said, would be used for the study of bigotry, misogyny, that sort of thing.

For just a moment in these unhinged times in which we live, let’s get rational enough to say what should be obvious to any and every adult who has paid the slightest bit of attention to the Imus saga, namely that there was no way in the world he meant his remark about that team to be taken literally. It was intended as a joke. To be sure, it was a tasteless, stupid, insulting joke, but exactly the sort of way-out, politically incorrect, scandalous joke on which Imus has built a decades-long career.

No one with a lick of sense could conceivably have thought Imus was suggesting anything factual about members of that team, and it is utterly absurd to think their reputations were diminished for even a second. If published reactions are a gauge, some thought the whole thing was much ado about nothing and others that Imus’ crudities had finally gone much too far, but none that Imus had somehow revealed the real character of the basketball players. Imus himself apologized as if his life depended on it, not just through the press, but in a private meeting with the players and their coach, and guess what they players did? They accepted the apology.

Vaughn’s good name was not put in jeopardy by Imus, and if she wants this whole thing to go away, the last thing she should do is file a suit that earns fresh headlines and makes people wonder whether this is yet one more instance of someone using the courts for the purpose of undeserved enrichment at the expense of others. I am not blaming Vaughn herself for the decision. She surely relied on the advice of others who are older and more experienced in the ways of the world. But I have no hesitancy in saying that those who advised this course of action have done her a disfavor while simultaneously abetting the further diminishment of respect for law.

Imus, who lost his job over the affair and has just settled his own lawsuit against CBS, could be headed back to his own radio show again and may be tempted to settle with Vaughn just to get the whole thing over with. But if he does, do all the others he has joked about over the years then line up to get their share of the take?

I am not here to defend Imus, whose style of offensive overreach is the last thing from laudable, in my view. My concern is with a society that is forever damaging itself through the abuse of a magnificent mechanism, the law, which is meant to set things right.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)