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Freedom of speech doesn't shield speaker from consequences

Posted: May 1, 2014 - 4:53pm

We’ve heard, and read, a lot of talk around the central Kenai Peninsula communities on Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling and his lifetime ban from the NBA.

Sterling said some racist things, on tape, to his girlfriend and the fallout resulted in the NBA banning him from league activities for life, slapping him with a $2.5 million fine and attempting to force the sale of the team.

People seemed to have moved on from the content of his racist comments and into the realm of debating whether he had the right to say it in the first place. Some seem to believe that his speech should somehow be protected because of his constitutional rights — namely free speech and an implied “right to privacy.”

As we often get similar complaints about violations of free speech when we refuse to publish certain letters to the editor or when we delete comments that violate the terms of service of our website — we thought we’d clear a few things up about what the freedom of speech does and does not do.

As for a right to privacy? We can’t help you with that — it’s not in the Constitution at all and implied rights don’t carry the same weight as what’s written in the document.

The First Amendment to the Constitution, part of the Bill of Rights, prohibits the “making of any law ... abridging the freedom of speech” of U.S. citizens.

That means that the government can’t arrest you for the things that you say and they can’t make laws that would stop you from saying them. It’s not a blanket protection; if you incite a riot, lie in court, use certain obscenities or make a porn with children in it, you’ll probably find yourself in a fair bit of legal trouble.

But, in general, you can say what you want to say, when you want to say it, and the government cannot interfere. It’s an ingenious bit of writing and we’re not just saying that because the amendment protects the press as well. We think that the ability of the populous to speak freely is one reason the United States has maintained a representative democracy and we’re proud to live in a place that enables us to give whistleblowers a platform without fear of government retribution.

The downside of protection for all is that sometimes you have to hear someone’s vile opinion in addition to all of the awesome protected opinions you like to hear.

But, as is the case with Sterling’s racist rant, freedom of speech does not mean that everyone else has to continue listen to something they don’t like. It doesn’t shield the speaker from criticism and it won’t prevent the consequences that come from Sterling saying something that his friends, neighbors, employees, advertisers, league fans and the American public might not want to hear.

If you say something inflammatory and you’re yelled at, kicked off of a website, escorted out of a restaurant or banned from attending professional basketball games for the rest of your life — those people who think you’re a jerk don’t have to support your speech and they certainly don’t have to be associated with you.

In the case of Sterling, whose comments may have been obtained by a person who was deliberately setting him up, there is no protection written into this country’s Constitution that will compel the advertisers, fans and basketball players to work with or for a bigoted league owner — regardless of how they were informed of his opinions.

It doesn’t matter if he made the statements in his own home or shouted them from the Jumbotron at the Staples Center, Sterling said something stupid and it was broadcast and shared and re-broadcast all over the planet.

If you’re racist, sexist, classist or any other kind of “ist” that has been rejected in the court of popular opinion, but you feel comfortable speaking about your views in private — remember that privacy isn’t a right that’s guaranteed in the Constitution either, and you may have to face the consequences of sharing your unpopular opinion.

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