Unless you’ve been in a coma or under a rock, you’re probably aware of the controversy concerning “racist remarks” made by the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling. What he said to his gold-digging girlfriend regarding her consorting with black athletes in public was despicable. However, what it revealed was what folks in the wide world of professional sports already knew – or should have known. Sterling is an idiot. He is also living proof there’s little correlation between dollars and sense.
Clearly, Sterling has a less than sterling record when it comes to race relations – with blacks and other minorities, too. Still, there is, or should be, a distinction between his public acts and his private thoughts, expressed in opinions voiced in private conversation with his alleged paramour. Setting aside the hyperbole and hypocrisy surrounding the Sterling controversy, there is a much larger issue at stake here: freedom of speech.
The framers of our Constitution held freedom of speech in such high regard they placed it prominently among our First Amendment rights, including freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly.
Who among us has not thought and even uttered something in private we would never express in public? As Jesus said, “Let who is without sin cast the first stone.” The truth is none of us are without sin, including the chattering classes who have jumped on the bandwagon of outrage against Sterling.
Where was the outrage when Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Jeremiah Wright ranted their racist remarks? Were they roundly condemned, fined, and banned from their livelihood? Of course not. They continue to bray and prove the razor of racism cuts both ways. If freedom of speech means anything in America, it must include the speech we despise, including theirs.
Unfortunately, the recent trend in freedom of speech in America has been toward venerating the speech we agree with, and vilifying the speech we disagree with. If the thought police and verbal vigilantes have their way, we’ll have “selective freedom of speech.” That’s an oxymoron, with potentially dire implications for one of our most precious rights.
That said, freedom of speech is not absolute. However, it is such a fundamental right that limiting it, absent some clear connection with harmful action, is a threat – not just to Sterling and others of his peculiar persuasion, but to the rest of us as well. That’s a good reason to disagree with what idiots like Sterling say, but to defend their right to say it.
Retired Army Col. Thomas B. Vaughn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.