L.A. City Council denounces Civil War-era comedy series

Tuesday, October 6, 1998

The Los Angeles City Council last week condemned as racist the new UPN sitcom “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer,” a move that sparked an outcry from free-speech advocates and the network's president.

The council directed the city's Human Relations Commission to determine if the show is suitable for broadcast. In the meantime, it demanded that UPN pull the show from its prime-time schedule.

UPN President Dean Valentine called the move “shameful, outrageous and dangerous” and “political correctness taken to the level of insanity.”

Because UPN — the sixth largest television network — is privately owned, the council can't bar it from broadcasting the show. But free-speech advocates and the network say the council's resolution creates a hostile environment for the entertainment industry.

“Any creative person in this town has reason to fear the City Council if this is the way they intend to behave and if this is how they view their charter of human relations,” said Valentine in a statement. He added that he “simply will not put up with this kind of outrageous government interference in the creative process.”

“The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” is about a black Englishman who works as a butler in the Lincoln White House. Although set in the Civil War era and starring African-American actor Chi McBride, the series doesn't focus on slavery, network officials said.

But the series, which debuted yesterday, has faced heated criticism for making light of the issue. The Brotherhood Crusade and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People demanded the show's cancellation after learning of one particular scene in the pilot episode involving a lynching.

UPN officials pulled the pilot, running the series' second episode in its place. Although they called the gesture “an olive branch,” the network plans to air the pilot at a later date.

The council said that a sitcom seeking “humor in the travails of African Americans should never have made it this far.”

The resolution, introduced by Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, said, in part, “there should be no attempt at censorship” and that “the First Amendment must be respected.” But the council said “the broadcasting of this show to a national audience must be postponed until such time as it is made clear that this show does not trivialize slavery.”

Ridley-Thomas did not return a call to his office.

David Greene, program director for the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, said the council's action “is directly contrary to both the spirit and the letter of the Constitution's prohibition on governmental interference with the freedom of speech.”

“The City Council's stated desire to 'respect' the First Amendment rings hollow,” Greene said in a letter to the council. “If the freedom of speech means anything, it is that government has no role in decreeing what expression, based on its viewpoint, is appropriate for public consumption.”

Council members said they would wait to hear from the city's Human Relations Commission before taking further action. The commission's deadline to report to the council about the show is Friday, four days after it premiered.