Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, is a jerk. It is not necessary for this editorial column to establish that. He has already done so by himself.
In this country, under the Constitution, a person is allowed to be a jerk, provided only that he does not break the law. Donald Sterling has not broken the law. What he has done is to express reprehensible opinions. In this country, under the Constitution, one is allowed to harbor and to express reprehensible opinions, especially in private. Its called free speech.
If the speech of everyone in this country were to be sensible and civil, there would be no need for a Constitution to protect free speech. The First Amendment is written to prevent government suppression of speech and to allow jerks to say what they want. Donald Sterling lives under the Constitution. He should not be forced to sell his team because he exercised his First Amendment right to sound stupid and bigoted.
Apparently, under the covenant he entered into with the other owners of NBA teams, those owners have the right to force Sterling to sell. Apparently, their coercion against Sterling is legal. It is not, however, a good idea to exercise that right of coercion because it punishes private speech. To exercise that coercion smacks of mob rule, which, in the case of Donald Sterling, may be eminently justified, but which also sets a precedent. That precedent says: The Thought Police have come to this country. Guard what you say in private. You may be punished for it. That goes against the reason why this country was founded, as reflected in the First Amendment.
If Donald Sterlings continued ownership of his team is in line with the First Amendment, so is the right of any fan not to buy a ticket to watch his team play and of any NBA player to refuse to pay him the slightest honor. If the Constitution was written for Sterling, it was also written for all other interested parties. If Sterling should keep his team if he so desires, he must also face the music: the wrath of fans, of players, of others. If he wishes to express reprehensible opinions, that is his right; it is equally the right of others to denounce and ostracize him and to refuse to support his team.
We are worried about precedent. A person says something in private. It gets out. That person is then punished . . . sounds like the old Soviet Union. Like the infamous knock on the door. It sounds like the atmosphere of fear that closed down the expression of opinion for 70 years for tens of millions of people under a tyrannical political system. That system should be given not the slightest room to come back, in whole or in part, whether in its past form or in some new variation.
The price of living in a free society, with freedom of speech, under a Constitution, is reprehensible speech. Its a lot easier to tear down Constitutional rights than it is to put in place a society with a Constitution. It took a few thousand years and endless human suffering to do that. Be careful with what you mess with.
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