Late last week, an audio recording was released in which the owner of an NBA team is heard making a series of racist comments to his girlfriend. The owner, who I won't name simply because I don't like giving even a millisecond of additional publicity to people like him, was heard telling his girlfriend that he didn't want her bringing black people to his team's games. Seriously. This man, who makes millions upon millions of dollars each year due in large part to the work of black men (around 70% of NBA players are black), coached by a black man (Doc Rivers, a certain NBA hall-of-famer), doesn't want his girlfriend being seen in the company of black men. Wow.
Every time I read about a person making this sort of statement, I begin to wonder about whether the whole "freedom of speech" concept should be reined in just a bit. I think of how conflicted a black soldier must feel when he reads the latest racist rant in the media and realizes he is putting his life on the line every day to preserve the freedom of people who feel he is less of a man than they are. I think of the emotional pain inflicted upon grieving family members when the funeral of a loved one is picketed by members of the hopefully now defunct Westboro Baptist Church, carrying signs espousing their twisted, vile, hateful beliefs. Media reports suggest the man charged in the recent killing of three innocent people at a Jewish Community Center was a white supremacist, spurred on in part by a torrent of hate speech he read on a white supremacy website. The list could go on and on. The point is that speech can cause real damage, all the way from emotional harm to death. Would it not, then, make sense to try and limit the harm caused by such ignorant rants? Can we not draw the line, as is done in many other countries (Israel, for example, bans certain types of anti-Semitic speech), at hate speech? Each time I go through this mental debate, I arrive at the same conclusion: we cannot, and we should not, place limits on speech of any sort.
Although the First Amendment has obviously been a part of our heritage for a long time, freedom of speech really came to the forefront during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's. Attempts by some states to punish civil rights leaders who were seen as advocating "revolution" in the United States consistently failed when evaluated in the light of the First Amendment. The same First Amendment protections have been applied to women seeking equal rights in a male-dominated society, and to gay/lesbian couples seeking the same rights and protections as those guaranteed to heterosexual couples in our country.
Once a person considers the history of free speech in the United States, the fact that it should remain in place exactly as it is, without limitation, becomes clear. We have to look deeper into the reason for free and open speech, well beyond the fact that it allows a person to express whatever opinion he or she may hold, regardless of how offensive it may be. We must recognize it is through free speech that racist and homophobic beliefs are exposed to the world as the ignorant ravings they are. The suppression of such thoughts only causes them to grow; hate and ignorance fester like an infected boil in the dark, damp corners of the minds that harbor them. It is only through bringing these opinions into the light of day that they can be evaluated, dissected, and ultimately silenced.
Free speech can cause a tremendous amount of pain, anguish, and heartache, yet it is an invaluable part of our society. Voltaire had it right when he said "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." And so, I close with my own little bit of free speech, directed to Mr. Sterling: You, sir, are a foolish, and soon-to-be-irrelevant, bigot.