“A Very, Very Slippery Slope”

The New York Times is reporting this afternoon that Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, has been barred from the NBA for life and fined $2.5 million in lieu of the secret taping of what he thought was a private conversation during which he expressed remarks that were both ignorant and extremely offensive.

The NBA understandably wants to protect its brand. And if in its collective discretion it believes that Mr. Sterling’s remarks damage that brand, everyone else who has a vested financial interest in the brand has the right to entirely and completely disassociate from Sterling in any legally manner permissible. I totally get that.  It’s the means to the end that I find disturbing in this situation.

According to a statement issued by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver under the NBA Constitution – whatever that is – it is apparently permissible to ban someone from attending future NBA games (and practices). I would like to understand how that squares with the other Constitution that I assume is still considered higher authority.

And speaking of that Constitution, there is the very first amendment, which as part of the Bill or Rights guarantees citizens living under it the right of free speech. What this incident will – or at least should – do is start a robust debate in this country about where publicly contrived penalties and sanctions stemming from offensive and/or hurtful speech cross the line into becoming de facto limiting of free speech.

Free Speech Means Tolerating Ignorance & Persecution

Now, nobody has told Mr. Sterling that he has to stop talking. But I question whether the penalties levied by the NBA border on the incredulous. They serve notice that offensive speech (even when said in private) is not only intolerable – but will be penalized in such a fashion as to act as a restriction of that speech. And there is also the issue of whether Sterling’s fifth amendment right to due process has been violated by being forced into forfeiting his personal ownership of the Clippers.

I’m sure someone like Sterling has many legal eagles at his disposal, and he doesn’t need me playing the role of constitutional counsel. And frankly, it makes me uncomfortable thinking that someone may interpret this post as being in any way supportive of Sterling’s remarks. I am not. But I am being supportive of his right to say whatever he wants within the historic understanding of what constitutes free speech.

We are losing that historical perspective. Free speech in this country is, always has been – and hopefully always will be – a double-edged sword. The video clip I inserted above does a fine job of expressing that. And if that doesn’t do it, then I think what Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks said hits the nail on the head:

“What Donald said was wrong. It was abhorrent. There’s no place for racism in the N.B.A., any business I’m associated with, and I don’t want to be associated with people who have that position. But at the same time that’s a decision I make. I think you’ve got to be very, very careful when you start making blanket statements about what people say and think, as opposed to what they do. It’s a very, very slippery slope.”

A slippery slope indeed. The media (as in what used to be the press) has historically been thought of as the fourth branch of government because one of its fundamental roles was to investigate and report factual evidence that stood apart from political discourse. We know that reality has been obfuscated nearly beyond recognition today, and we have sat back and enjoyed being entertained while it happened.

Those who have read my blog should know where I generally stand politically. So if this event alarms me, maybe it should you too. Maybe not – I’d love to hear your thoughts. I think it’s time we start rethinking what we’ve allowed to happen in this country before you or I are the next people whose liberties are threatened because we say the wrong thing.


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