By: Eric Thomas

I believe Donald Sterling shouldn’t be further punished by the NBA; the exposure of his ignorance should be enough. He’s been pilloried in every column, every blog, and every Twitter account. He’s become America’s latest in the seemingly endless “racist (and/or homophobic) punching bag of the week” series.

Odd how we all hate intolerance, yet scream his comments must not be tolerated. Odd how when someone speaks hate, we answer with more hate. It’s never quelled bigotry, and always makes things worse, but who cares? It’s pure pleasure to feel self-righteous.

Does Sterling deserve it? Probably. I don’t have any of the prior knowledge that many in this matter seemed to have. I’d read about the lawsuits that were settled out of court, but that doesn’t really prove anything. I’ll defer to the veteran reporters and NBA players who say they’ve long known about his bigotry and remained silent until now. I kind of wish that if a preponderance of evidence was available for 20 years that they would have spoken up before all this moral outrage showed up with pitchforks and torches.

I’ve commented many times on the ignorant evils of racism, no need to add to the pile. But I think it’s a good idea to step back for a moment when we think about a person—regardless of how ignominious—who is about to be sanctioned on the basis of what appears to be illegally obtained evidence.

In almost every article written on the Donald Sterling controversy, you’ve seen someone say “this isn’t a free speech issue.” They say that free speech does not apply when a company or organization is concerned. I’ve gotten loudly trolled by people who claim that I “don’t understand the First Amendment,” which is hilarious because they seem to lack an understanding of how the U.S. Government works, vis a vis the shifting interpretation of the Constitution.

For a refresher course, here is the text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

It’s open to a certain amount of interpretation, obviously. That’s probably why there is an entire entity whose whole job is interpreting the Constitution and it’s the THIRD BRANCH OF GOVERNMENT.

Nowhere in the amendment does it specifically draw a line between business and the government. Furthermore, if you’ve studied this at all, the Federalists specifically believed that a strong government had the power to set the rules of commerce. The Supreme Court draws from many different sources, not just the literal text of the Constitution. They deepen their interpretations from personal letters between the framers and essays written in the “Federalist Papers.” Jefferson coined the term “separation of church and state” in an effort to explain the original intent of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses.

One could interpret that the right of speech and expression cannot be taken by any entity, because we hold the truths to be self-evident that humans have certain inalienable rights. That’s an interpretation. Is it the status quo? No.

Among the genius ideas of the Constitution—well stated by the character played by Joe Pesci in the otherwise lousy film “With Honors”—is its ability to change. Abolition of slavery and suffrage for women was added later. Sometimes the Constitution needs to be amended, and other times a simple shift in interpretation will do. Americans didn’t enjoy the right to privacy until a series of interpretations made it possible.

Companies have the right to fire you if you say something they disagree with. Should they? Why do we allow companies to limit their employee’s freedom of expression? If a liberal hires a conservative, then sees his or her picture in the paper while they are attending a tea party rally, should that company be allowed to dismiss them? Can that fired employee petition his or her government for redress of a grievance? It’s a question that’s open to interpretation. If we believe that Americans are entitled equal protection in terms of race and religion, should the same apply to opinion?

I—and this is my opinion, I am at peace that many disagree—am a near-absolutist in regard to free speech, and should only be restricted in the “falsely yelling fire in a crowded theater” paradigm or outright threats. I think indecency guidelines should be abolished and the Miller test should be tossed.

If anything, I think companies would be happy if they didn’t have the power to fire someone for their opinions. Companies could be held harmless and not liable when an employee says or participates in unpopular activities. The individual alone would be responsible for his or her statements, and we could waste a lot less time on this nonsense. Firms wouldn’t have to force otherwise valuable employees to resign because outside forces have decided to act against them. Businesses could focus on the task at hand and not monitor their employee’s personal lives.

I believe in the cleansing power of free speech. It creates an informed electorate, educated consumers and ribald debate. I’m especially radical when it comes to offensive speech. Allow racists to speak, and their exposed ignorance will speak for itself. Racism thrives when it’s allowed to hide behind hoods and barbed wire fences. If those taped comments online made you squirm, that’s the point. Best not to further punish him and make him a martyr among those who agree with him.

Is Donald Sterling entitled to first amendment protection when he’s having a private conversation with his girlfriend? What are his rights? Do we draw no distinction between private conversation and public anymore? Isn’t that scary?

Sterling’s body is just the latest to be loaded on the pyre and sprayed with accelerant; as we continue this ideological cleanse one bad statement at a time. We consecrate these men and women, flushing them for saying something to someone once. Phil Robertson, Paula Dean, Isaiah Washington; the list is stunningly long and could be updated weekly. America has apparently decided to deal with racism and intolerance with tactics that would make Joe McCarthy proud. What’s the end game? Are we doing this because we’re hoping to purge everyone who’s ever thought or said something unpopular? Will there be a day when America is ideologically pure? Are we looking forward to that day?

This method solves nothing. Racism isn’t dead. It’s hiding. It will only fade when we expose it to the sun. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. understood restraint. Those methods were assassinated along with them.

Why can’t we discuss this? Why do we have to focus on punishing a person when we disagree with their thoughts? If free speech is impeded by a company, is there still free speech? Do we give up our right to free expression when we agree to employment or are we trading our time for labor? Are morality clauses legal? Are we afraid to use free speech when we need it more than ever? Have we used the internet to spread outrage and anger farther and faster than we can consider the consequences of our actions?

Have we abandoned reason for the fever of a mob?


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