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Z_CNHI News Service

May 9, 2014

Sterling wasn't right - but has every right to free speech

Editor's note: CNHI newspapers that are not weekly subscribers to Taylor Armerding's column may publish this one if they notify him at t.armerding@verizon.net.

It certainly has been a cathartic couple of weeks on the racial front.

Donald Sterling, billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, has been banned from any participation in the NBA, hit with a $2.5 million fine and may be forced to sell the team for his derogatory statements regarding blacks.

So now all the rest of us – Caucasian, Latino, African American, Asian – can feel better about ourselves. We have purged a racist from our midst and put everybody else on notice: Watch what you say lest you be excommunicated from legitimate society.

But I’m not feeling so good. I thought America was the land where you weren’t supposed to have to watch what you say, unless it was “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

I thought the whole notion of free speech means defending the right to say things that most people find loathsome. That the answer to ignorant, bigoted or racist speech was more speech - not crushing the speaker.

And that the principle of “defending to the death” another’s right to say things that may be stupid, disagreeable or outright nasty has been at the core of our understanding of the First Amendment for generations.

Is it really progress to junk all that over the inane, private pronouncements of a sick, rich, old, white guy?

I carry no brief for Sterling. This is not a defense of what he said – only his right to say it without sanctions from an organization that, if the private utterances of all its participants were made public, would have a lot more ostracizing to do.

And that is the first, big problem with the orgy of punishment issued to Sterling - privacy.

This was not a radio and TV host like Don Imus making a racist, sexist comment on air to a national audience. This was a guy having what he thought was a private conversation with his black, Hispanic mistress (confidante?) in which he demanded that she not promote her relationship with other blacks or to “bring them to my games.”

Yes, it was ignorant, bigoted and pathetic - but also private. If law enforcement had come up with that recording without a warrant, it would have been laughed out of any court in the land.

Are the rest of us ready to turn over transcripts of everything we’ve said in private? I doubt it.

Then there is the double-standard problem regarding bigoted speech.

Jamie Foxx, the actor, hosted “Saturday Night Live” not long ago and promoted his latest movie, “Django Unchained,” by remarking, “I kill all the white people. How great is that?” His comment wasn't, “Don’t bring white people to my movies,” but instead how great it is that his character kills all the white people.

He was just being funny, he said later. Sure. Try flipping that, where a white actor celebrates his character “killing all the black people.”

Of course, there was no self-righteous huffing from Hollywood. No big fine levied against Foxx. No ban, or even suspension, on appearing in Hollywood films.

Which is fine, but that is the way it ought to be for Sterling, too.

I have a problem with what Foxx said, but I defend his right to say it, and I don’t think he should get banned from his profession for saying something pathetic and bigoted. If I have enough of a problem with him, I can refuse to see any of his movies and change the channel when he comes on TV. I can encourage others to do the same. But I shouldn’t be demanding that he be banned from the movie industry.

Foxx is not the only example of the double-standard on racist speech. Jesse Jackson, self-appointed “civil rights leader,” famously referred to New York City as “Hymietown" - an overt, hateful slur of Jews. Al Sharpton, one of the nation’s most persistent race hustlers, has a history of anti-Semitism and has also referred to whites as “crackers.”

I despise what they say - hey, I despise most of what hustlers like them say – but they have every right to say it without being fined $1 million or more.

It’s a mystery to me why people like Sharpton and Jackson end up on television so often as “spokesmen” for African Americans. I would think the black community would be embarrassed – as embarrassed as I would be if Sterling claimed to be a spokesman for whites.

The bottom line is that Sterling has plenty of company when it comes to racism, and not just from other whites.

Free speech is based on tolerance. I hear endlessly from those demanding Sterling’s scalp that they are tolerant, and they want him ostracized because he is not.

They don’t understand the word. Tolerance means putting up with what you find dumb, distasteful or even dead wrong. It doesn’t mean celebrating or endorsing what Sterling said. You can criticize it and show solidarity with those he demeaned; those displays of solidarity at Clippers games were among the few excellent and appropriate responses to what Sterling said.

But they also ought to defend his right to say what he did. Freedom of speech does not exist to protect what is popular; that needs no protection. It is in place to protect the unpopular, and yes, the politically incorrect

That principle is far more important than anything Donald Sterling said.

Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at t.armerding@verizon.net

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