Topic: Professions & Institutions

Extorting Michael Richards
(12/4/2006)

Gloria Allred, the publicity-obsessed Los Angeles plaintiffs attorney, has managed to do the impossible. She has turned Michael Richards into a victim.

Yes, that would be the same comic Michael Richards whose inexplicable attack of Klansman-mouth in a comedy club was caught on camera, setting him off on a desperate groveling tour to convince America that he isn't a virulent racist.

Virulent racists just aren't funny, and the former "Kramer" of the Seinfeld sitcom knows that his career, reputation and millions of dollars depend on his finding a way to somehow get Americans to forget, forgive, or blame something else for his conduct. Mel Gibson, George Allen, Trent Lott, and Tom Cruise have been through similar ordeals recently with varying degrees of success, but none of them make their living being funny, and none of them were filmed saying anything as repugnant as Richards' tirade.

He's toast, you know. Richards now has about as much chance of making people chuckle by playing lovable wackos like "Cosmo Kramer" as O.J. Simpson has of playing "Nordberg" in another "Naked Gun" movie. But it is understandable that Richards would grasp at straws to try stave off the inevitable. If he's willing to kiss Al Sharpton's uh, ring, then he'll try anything.

Enter Gloria Allred, who saw a way to squeeze big bucks out of Richards' desperation. She knows that Richards' conduct holds no lucrative lawsuit potential. The only person who was truly injured by his outburst was himself. Obnoxious though it may be, calling someone a racial epithet is neither a crime nor a tort; the first amendment effectively prevents the courts from punishing speakers and writers for inflicting general harm with "mere words." In 99.9% of such cases, the chances of getting a verbal abuser to compensate someone offended or horrified by his comments would be zero. So how does an enterprising plaintiff's attorney manage to have a shot at a nice fat contingent fee when there's no lawsuit to file?

Eureka! Sign up four blacks who witnessed Richards' racist meltdown and who are not averse to getting a pay-off for their experience. Have them profess to have been "injured" by his rant…humiliated, threatened, degraded, yada yada yada. Then invent your own judicial system where the First Amendment doesn't apply!

Allred publicly "invited" Richards to meet with her four clients and apologize, with a "retired judge" acting as Solomon. Once Richards has done all the groveling he can, the judge---retired, mind you---will decide what Richards needs to do to make it all up to the African-Americans. Whatever the judge commands, Richards will have to do. Climb a redwood and proclaim himself a worthless racist from the treetop! Watch a production of Mama Mia! Become a season ticket holder for the Kansas City Royals! Spend an evening with Ann Coulter! With Howard Dean! With Howard Dean AND Ann Coulter! Or maybe, just maybe, pay each of Allred's "verbally damaged" souls a million dollars, with Gloria getting a 40% cut.

This, my friends, is a creative variety of extortion, but extortion it is. Allred is pursuing a clever, cynical and merciless strategy designed to take advantage of Richards' willingness to subject himself to anything that the public might decide sufficiently cleanses him of his sins. She knows, as I'm sure he strongly suspects, that nothing can salvage his career now; she also knows that he will leap at any chance at salvation, however remote. He is helpless and desperate, his neck exposed to her fangs…just where she wants him.

Because her clients have no right to any legal damages, Allred's plan has nothing to do with justice, and everything to do with exploiting a situation to create a lucrative fee. I know it is hard to accept, but it is unethical to treat racist comedians unfairly. Unethical, but as Allred has correctly calculated, safe. Almost nobody besides Mel Gibson and the Ethics Scoreboard is going to feel badly for Richards, no matter how thoroughly she exploits him.

But what Gloria Allred is doing is the equivalent of selling a false cancer cure to a terminally ill man. Any fair-minded person should hope that Allred's hand-picked "retired judge" will have the integrity to tell Richards that his groveling apologies, though not sufficient to heal his reputation, are all that Gloria Allred's clients deserve. Only this result will ensure that Allred's exploitation of Michael Richards' self-inflicted pain gets her exactly what she deserves.

Nothing.

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