Just in time for the U.S. holiday that honors the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King for his role in battling for civil rights in this country comes the latest hemispheric finding in a case that shows the challenges when a democratic, multicultural society seeks to both allow free speech but also to curtail racist, hateful expression — in this instance a curious slap at a global music publisher for its role with the lyrics of a song by a popular Brazilian clown cum politician. Sony Music Entertainment just recently has been ordered in Brazil to pay $1.2 million Brazilian reals ($656,000 U.S.) in a lawsuit brought by ten nongovernmental organizations that combat racism.

As reported by Gata Negras in a recent post on the blog  Black Women of Brazil, the Civil Chamber in Rio de Janeiro awarded the antiracism groups that sum after Sony’s unsuccessful 2004 appeal; the legal body imposed the penalty, calculating inflation on the plaintiffs’ suit’s value and interest retroactive to 1997. At issue is Sony’s release of the song, Veja os Cabelos Dela (Look at Her Hair), on the CD Florentina.  Sony Music holds the copyrights on the work and distributed 250,000 or so copies.

The song offended many Afro-Brazilians and women, with what critics assailed as its racist and misogynistic lyrics; the tune asserts that the hair of black women — whom it labels as malordorous — could be used to scrub pots.

What’s noteworthy is that the singer, Brazilian artist Francisco Everado Oliveira Silva (stage name “Tiririca“), escaped liabilty. This may be because he is not just a onetime clown and popular comedian but also a politician.  A Washington Post blog post singled him out, with the headline noting, “Tiririca, the newest Brazilian congressman, puts U.S. political ads to shame.”  Post writer Melissa Allen describes Tiririca’s employ as a circus clown,  television comedian and illiterate; he, nonetheless, became a legislator, voted into office possibly as a protest vote against the Brazilian government, as the Post noted, citing his YouTube video mocking Brazil’s laws and government.

But, alas, for Sony (as Julee Wilson wrote recently on the Huffington Post), Humberto Adami, attorney for the NGOs, argued successfully that song lyrics had offended, ridiculed and demeaned black women; the court deemed its words racist for their derogatory, outlandish generalizations about Afro-Brazilian women’s hair and hygiene. Sony Music contended the lyrics were not intended to offend women and that Tiririca was referring to his wife; the firm asserted that his lyrics expressed common views about black and white Brazilian women. The judgment, if it holds up, will not be paid to the NGOs but will go to a special civil rights fund in the Ministry of Justice.

What’s the implication of the Brazilian judgment for Americans? Janet Sassi tackled that topic late last year on Blog de Humberto Adami, quoting from legal research reported on Inside Fordham. In Sassi’s piece, Tiririca & Sony: Is the Grass Greener?, much attention is given to the thoughts of law professor Tanya Hernandez, who looks at the controversial Brazilian song and describes differences in how nations around the globe deal with defamatory language, racial and other slurs and the question of free speech.  Here is an excerpt:

Since United States civil rights laws were enacted in the 1950s and 1960s, there has been a real backslide away from legal prosecution of hate speech.  Today, a court case to prosecute a racial slur would most likely only succeed if the speech were uttered for the purpose of inciting imminent violence against a group.  There is an American conception that, since anti-discrimination laws regulate the actions that we can take, allowing people to verbally express whatever racially hostile ideas they have is an outlet that serves to diminish the action of racial discrimination…

Now that’s a provocative view that, especially on the MLK holiday, is worth pondering and discussing.