29 April 2014

Is speech free in the private sector?

Sports fans and interested outsiders are wondering what penalty the National Basketball Association will inflict on the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers franchise for racist remarks he made in a private (but recorded) phone conversation. The recording went public not long before the NAACP, to which the owner has been a frequent contributor, was to give him a Lifetime Achievement award. As the owner of a basketball team, of course, he's made millionaires of a number of black men. There seems to be a contradiction here between private feelings and public conduct, but I'm not interested in weighing them all in the balance to determine whether the man is a racist or not. What interests me is the fact that, while the severity of punishment remains to be determined by the NBA commissioner, and is subject to wide debate by basketball fans, the fact that he'll be punished for words spoken in private, merely for talking like a racist, is undisputed. He may be suspended or forbidden from attending his own games. He may be fined. Many angry people want him to be forced to sell the Clippers; some want him stripped of it without compensation. It probably won't go that far, but he will almost certainly be punished.

A backlash is probably already under way, with the owner seen as a likely victim of political correctness run amok. While no one, probably, will defend whatever the man said, some will probably see him as a martyr like the short-lived CEO of Mozilla who was denied the post when activists learned that he'd contributed to the campaign for the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in California. The Clippers case will look to some like another instance of intolerantly thin-skinned people forcing their repressive codes on everyone else, and in this case not merely in public but in private life as well.  If this is how you see it, however, your problem isn't with political correctness, but with the private sector. These cases serve as reminders, to those who shouldn't have needed them, that there is no Bill of Rights for the private sector. When people say there's "freedom of speech" in the U.S., they mean that the government can't make laws "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." The government can't formally forbid racist speech, for instance, but any private entity in "civil society" can.

One way of looking at this is to question whether the state or the private sector is the greater threat to freedom, when freedom is understood as being able to speak your mind without consequences. Another is to ask why, if private-sector entities can sanction bigoted speech, government should not. The correct way of looking at it, I think, is not to see a double standard, with business allowed to do what government can't, but to recognize that the "freedom of speech" protected by the First Amendment and the "freedom of speech" violated by private entities are two different things. The government can't forbid "hate," because it would be too easy for a partisan government to redefine opposition as hate (as Republicans accuse the Obama administration of doing), but freedom of political discourse isn't at stake in the decisions of a corporate board or a sports league, and in any event there was no political content to the owner's comments unless you, like the archetypal PC fanatic, see everything as politics. In civil society, different considerations can have priority. The Clippers owner will likely be sanctioned because his remarks amount to "conduct detrimental to the game" of basketball. While his philanthropic public gestures may contradict his private sentiments, once those sentiments were known they could be deemed unworthy of an NBA franchise owner. They're unworthy of an American citizen, too, but in such cases responsibility for the rebuke is privatized, just as libertarians and many Republicans would want. So what's the problem?

Update: The owner has been "banned for life" by the NBA and fined $2,500,000. The "ban" means that he won't be allowed to attend NBA games and can't make business decisions for the team he will continue to own. The decision follows an investigation conducted by the league to verify that his was the voice in the controversial recording. Again, if you think this unfair, your beef is less with any hegemony of political correctness than with a society that allows the private sector to deal with offensive people this way.


Anonymous said...

I think of it more as social evolution in action. In the private sector, bigotry is bad for business, i.e. the opposite of a survival trait. It seems to me what these bigots ought to truly question is why they are bigots in the first place.

Samuel Wilson said...

I bet it wouldn't surprise you if a lot of bigots actually rejected evolution as a concept. As reactionaries, they assume that society and culture has already reached a perfect state and can only get worse without their vigilance. Capitalism and bigotry seem like a poor match for the reason you suggest but we know that, for all their big talk about free competition, many capitalists want to call a halt to progress once it seems to threaten their position.