The Tortured Concept of Free Speech
Recent events have reinvigorated the calls that our free speech is being destroyed. Clivin Bundy, the rancher who has been refusing to pay grazing fees, was caught on tape in a rant with racist language. Then came Donald Sterling, owner of the LA Clippers and his infamous recorded phone call where he tells his girlfriend she can have all kinds of relationships with minorities just not to publicly display them. It was quite a week but what do really mean when we say free speech?
There is a natural right to believe what you want and to let people know. That is clearly something that predates the various legal protections of that right like the Bill of Rights in England and of course the 1st amendment. But freedom to say something is not the same as freedom of consequences. There seems to be a strange thing however, people seem to want the ability to exercise their right but not have anyone comment on it or cause consequences.
I am a strong advocate of the 1st amendment that protects us from legal consequences for stating our ideas. I can say anything publicly that is opinion and no law can make that illegal. (technically there are some cases where laws violate the 1st in my opinion) This concept is difficult for me some times, for example, it is not a crime for the God Hates Fag Church to stand outside my building and protest. We might want to have them arrested but that just makes it harder for us to voice our opinions if the government can pick who can speak. We don’t always agree with the government. But their protest does not need to go unchallenged.
Protesters of every stripe all have the right to say what they say, and I would like to see everywhere in the world that they are protected from government intervention and arrest. Saying something bad about the king, president, government or produce shouldn't be a crime. (BTW free speech advocates should be really upset about certain states having laws where you can't disparage certain food items).
When it comes to the results of recent events, people have been screaming about thought police. There are no thought police in this country. No one I know has advocated that either Bundy or Sterling be arrested for their words. But let's take Bundy. He was a classic example of a person that drew on the liberal/Conservative divide. For some he was standing up to the tyranny of government over-reach (even though it was Ronald Reagan that was the over-reacher by executive order about grazing fees). The right rallied around him and the left thought the right rallying was insane. Which it really was, this was not a worthy expression of their anxiety. When the racist diatribe was released, it poured gasoline on the fire of the debate but what happened, many on the right that totally stood with him abandoned him immediately. Why? Because his words were so offensive that they didn't want to be splashed with the filth that was being spewed. (Though some on the right stood by him and tried to explain how what he said wasn't racist). Those abandoning him did not diminish his right to say what he said. It just means he will have fewer champions.
Now Sterling is more complicated as he is a more complicated man. He is both a champion of minorities and someone who has been fined for discrimination in housing. He is someone who has befriended African-Americans in some significant relationships, including a lover, and yet said foul things about individuals on his team and of course the recorded phone call. He was known as a horrible person for years, you can find articles dating back 10 years about his racist views and yet it was not as cut and dried as now. The NBA decided to go nuclear on him, fine him the maximum, suspend him from the NBA for life and convene a meeting of owners to force him to sell the team. NBA has the right to say he can't play in their sandbox and that is not a violation of his free speech. Yet again we hear the cries of suppression of free speech and of course also attacking his girl friend as a criminal for taping him.
Speech comes with consequences. Be it businessmen, elected officials, clergy or the guy or sweeps the school. A CEO with an opinion about gays that flies in the face of most of their customers will be fired, an elected official who calls for the death of a fellow member of Congress could be sanctioned and in a perfect world lose in the next election, a clergy person who openly defies a tenet of their faith could be let go by their congregation or in some cases defrocked by the hierarchy and the janitor in a school who used school emails to promote a position on legalizing drugs can be fired. All of those people are exercising the freedom of thought and speech and all suffer natural consequences for it. That is not to say that we can’t call any and all of those things wrong. That would include Sterling’s punishment. But what is not correct is that some how we are destroying a freedom.
There will always be consequences for speech in a free society because the same freedom that allows you to say something is the one that allows others to react to it. It isn't thought police, it is society setting a public standard.
If Sterling or Bundy who I both find offensive were to be arrested for their words I would fight hard to make sure they are released. But until then they have the right to think and say what they will, and we all have the right to hold them accountable.