Consequences of free speech

A lot has been made recently of Los Angeles Clippers' owner Donald Sterling, being caught on tape saying some pretty racist things, bad enough for the NBA to ban him for life, fine him $2½ million, and force him to sell his team. From what I've heard, this result seems like a net positive for society as a whole, but how this whole thing has come about makes me very worried for the direction this country is headed.

According to the reports I've been reading, Sterling is not a very nice guy. Some say he has a long history of being racist. By the sound of things, the NBA will be better off without him. And yet, the NAACP gave him an award back in 2009 because (at least in part) he gave away a lot of tickets. The more cynical reports suggest he was given this award, with his racism overlooked, because he gave money to the right people. He was, in fact, due to receive another award this year from the NAACP, before recent events made the organization reconsider.

But what were the "recent events"? Did he use his power as an owner in real estate to deny housing to blacks or hispanics? Did he make an employment decision based on race? No, that was years ago (before, during, and after the NAACP was giving him his first lifetime achievement award). It happened because his girlfriend recorded a private conversation, coaxed him to say what he did, and sold the tape to the online tabloid TMZ.

I've read conflicting comments as to whether or not Sterling knew he was being recorded, but those that care to mention the girlfriend seem to agree that she really worked on Sterling to get him to make his damaging statements, leading him to say what he did and really dragging it out of him. Of course that brings a lot of rumor and speculation about how much, and from whom, she was getting paid to do this, and whether or not it was illegal (most likely if Sterling didn't know the tape was rolling).

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote an excellent opinion of the issue for Time, which echoes a lot of the comments I've heard that led me to my conclusion above. It also comes to pretty much the same end — Sterling's eviction from the NBA is a good thing and long overdue, but how it happened is very, very wrong.

The big question, of course, is, did Sterling deserve his NBA exile, fine, and loss of ownership of his team for what he said? Maybe his speech just served to bring about awareness of what he was actually doing, but because he only got punished when he expressed his views in the privacy of his own home, it certainly looks like that's his sin. He said something that was unpopular, and now he must pay.

It is true that "freedom of speech" does not make you free of consequences. If you say something that someone doesn't like, that person is just as entitled to use their own freedom of speech to speak out against you, exercise their freedom of association to refuse to do business with you, and even freely encourage others to avoid you as well. But why does it seem like it's only the speech — or even the perceived interpretation of speech — that deserves to be punished, when actions can go unnoticed or be forgiven?

We've been sliding down this slope for a while. Paula Deen was condemned for using a racial slur in the past (including in a description of someone who had a gun to her head), despite having apparently changed her ways since. Phil Robertson lost his place on the show Duck Dynasty for daring to honestly answer an interview question asking what he considered a sin (only to be reinstated after enough public support). Brendan Eich found he was unable to do his new job as Netscape CEO due to all the protests that, six years prior, he gave a paltry (for him) sum for California Proposition 8 — a view that, even though is becoming less so now, was the popular view at the time (Prop 8 passed) and, at the time, was even supported by presidential candidate Barack Obama. Cliven Bundy was supported by many in the (mostly right-wing) media, before he expressed his political opinion that came off as racist (though that might be less actual racism and more poor word choice and selective editing by the media, depending on your point of view).

So now, it's not just what you say in public. It's not even what you said in public in the past, whether or not you've recanted since. But what you say in private, behind closed doors, can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion; and if your opinion goes against the prevailing wisdom, whichever way it happens to be blowing at the time, then God help you.