Thursday, May 1, 2014

Even free speech has consequences

No doubt, the sports and entertainment world is a better place without the execrable rantings of Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers owner who is now banned for life by the National Basketball Association.

When a secretly recorded audio of Sterling's disparaging and repugnant remarks about African-Americans became public, the reaction seemed universal: He should be shunned and silenced. Racist remarks will quickly clear a room or ruin a conversation, but the mega-attention and instantaneous transmission of today's information makes those revolting remarks of a man most of us had never heard of the Big News of the Day. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver swiftly issued a lifetime ban on Sterling and fined him the maximum amount within his authority, and he strongly suggested that Sterling should be forced to sell his team.

I have heard no dissenting voices in reaction to these events, and I should not be surprised. Speaking up for a racist is no less respectable than speaking up for a child molester, and I can't think of any words that would defend Sterling's bigotry and hatred. Nevertheless, is taking away a person's right to express his opinion in a private conversation any worse than disrespecting others because of their color or race?

As repugnant as Sterling's opinions are, if the purloined audiotape is credible, he has not expressed support for racist policies or violence. The tapes show only that he objected to his girlfriend's choice of friends, based on their race. That's an attitude America has shunned and forbidden as we have purposely steered away from the racial attitudes of past generations.

This is a country, it should be remembered, that allowed neo-Nazis to march through a Jewish neighborhood (that included some Holocaust survivors), demonstrating a hatred far more severe and violent than anything Sterling expressed. Does freedom of expression allow stupid people to say offensive things? Does freedom of thought allow people to hold opinions that are repugnant to the vast majority of Americans?

I would answer yes to those two questions, but I would also assert that words have consequences, and even protected speech might be costly to the speaker. Politicians get into trouble by using the wrong words in unrehearsed remarks and then face costly repercussions even though they might not have meant how the words were taken. They have the freedom to say those things, but they suffer the consequences.

Donald Sterling is facing the consequences of his unedited, private speech. Americans can rejoice in his punishment but should not celebrate too much. When free speech and free thought expressed in private conversations are penalized, we all are vulnerable.

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