We indeed have free speech — to a point

Date Published: 
May 16, 2014

Racism has again entered the nation’s conversation lately, as people have responded to the insidious remarks made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling in a recording reportedly made without his knowledge by his admitted mistress.

Many have become angry over the comments, including NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who banned Sterling from the league for life and slapped a fine of $2.5 million on him, for good measure. Clippers players, so repulsed by Sterling’s words, came out to their next game with their warm-ups on inside-out so they wouldn’t show the name of their team. And current players from other teams, including the league’s biggest star, LeBron James, have spoken out vehemently against Sterling and his words.

When this first broke a few weeks ago, I made a conscious decision to stay away from the topic. I saw it as a case of an old bigot spewing forth divisive words, and a commissioner who stepped in and did what he had to do in order to protect the league he serves.

Ugly. Then justice. All seemed fair to me.

The one part of this that was pulling at me, however, was the insistence by some that we have freedom of speech in this country, and Sterling had a right to say whatever disgusting thing he wants without fear of repercussion.

Look, I am a huge fan and advocate of the First Amendment. We would not be able to do our jobs here at the paper without having the right to question our government, and, personally, I have a slight tendency to say things from time to time that raise eyebrows, to say the least. Suffice it to say, I wrap myself in the cloak of the First Amendment on a fairly regular basis.

But I think many people are missing the point.

The First Amendment permits people to speak their mind openly without fear of government reprisal, as long as those words do not pose a risk to others. The old example is that one can not yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater and not expect to get in trouble for causing a panic that could have lead to injuries.

It is a beautiful right, in that we can question and criticize our leaders without fear of being locked away in Siberia to keep us muzzled. However, it does not preclude consequences from others.

An employee of a company can not go out of his or her way to verbally bash that company, or insult clients of the company, without getting some kind of response from the employer. Yes, you will not get thrown in jail by the government for your comments in this instance, but you will probably be searching the Coastal Point’s amazing Classified section for a new job.

A person also can not go out of his or her way to maliciously impune the character or reputation of another individual without retribution. The words “slander” and “libel” come to mind immediately in a legal sense, and the potential for a blackened eye also enters the picture on a more personal level.

Speaking of black eyes, there’s a good chance that will happen to a guy who makes the wrong inappropriate comment to the wrong woman. Yeah, you have free speech, but it often comes with consequences.

And consequences are now hitting Sterling for his comments. By alienating a significant percentage of players in the NBA, he badly damaged the opportunity for his franchise to compete in the future, as free agents are far less likely to sign with a team that has a racist face.

Feel that players are just in it for the money, so they will go to the Clippers if they offer more? Well, consider that the NBA has a salary cap for their teams, so overpaying for just one player will handcuff the organization to be able to sign anybody else. Field a team that can’t possibly compete and fans stop coming. That’s less fans at games in Los Angeles, and less fans at games in other cities, as fans are less likely to spend their money to go watch a bad team play. That’s less revenue for the league, and they won’t have that.

A huge number of corporate sponsors also pulled their support from the organization following Sterling’s remarks. Again, money talks in the NBA. Sterling said what he said and did not go to prison. That’s free speech.

But he’s now banned from the league and all speculation points to his fellow owners forcing him to sell the team sooner rather than later. That’s the other side of free speech.