THE BLOG
05/02/2014 09:14 am ET Updated Jul 01, 2014

Donald Sterling, Free Speech, and Privacy

NBA players, fans and civic leaders seemingly all agree with and are applauding NBA Commissioner Adam Silver's decision to ban for life LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling for Sterling's racist objections (secretly and illegally recorded) to his lady friend's associating publicly with African Americans. Most of the NBA players are black and the teams' owners overwhelmingly white. They apparently were not prepared to allow Sterling's private rant to go unpunished. Silver gave them exactly what they were demanding -- Sterling's head on a silver platter. On top of the lifetime ban, Sterling's been fined $2.5 million and the commissioner is making overtures to get the LA Clippers sold to someone whose views are more acceptable.

We disagree with the lifetime ban -- and with the reasons Silver gave for sacking Sterling -- and we dissent from those who gleefully think that punishing a guy exclusively for racist comments he's made in the privacy of his home is a solid basis for determining that Donald Sterling is unfit to be seen ever again at an NBA game or as the owner of a private business that's governed by the bylaws of a professional sports association. Not enough of us have stepped forth to say -- yes, yes, yes, Donald Sterling is a closet racist -- he voiced putrid attitudes about African Americans. But, we need more than that in our free society to take away an owners' team -- to strip from him his citizenship rights and business interest simply because his views about race and skin color offend us.

We are, respectively, African American, and a Jewish Caucasian -- we know first-hand and culturally the sting of racism, anti-Semitism and bigotry of every stripe. We fight it every day of our lives. We value human dignity as a right of all people -- but we also value the right to be different, the right to hold obnoxious and vile ideas -- when, voiced or communicated, rebutted by more noble ideas and truths. Our preference is to have a conversation about speech, privacy, and race relations, and not simply about one basketball team owner's disgusting ideas about race. We value free speech not only because it is a guarantee against governmental incursion under our First Amendment -- which doesn't apply to private businesses and associations like the NBA -- but because every person in our free society has the right to believe what they want to believe, and, yes, say what they want to say. Otherwise, free speech would be for us and everyone who agrees with us -- and not for those whose ideas and thinking we deplore. The remedy for repugnant expression is corrective expression.

Plain speech between a man and his former lady-friend ought not to be the basis for sanction much less a hefty fine by the commissioner of the National Basketball Association. Actual discriminatory conduct should be a prerequisite for punishment. Alternatively, Commissioner Silver should have stated the specific articulable evidence before him that showed that Sterling's remarks had negatively affected the NBA -- instead, he told us that he was personally wounded by the remarks he heard on the audiotapes -- and that he was satisfied it was Sterling's voice on the tape. Is that enough to end a man's career? Silver did not even make a case that advertisers are walking, players demanding free agent status, or the public's boycotting games because of Sterling's idiotic rant.

Commissioner Silver has opened the door to a slippery slope; the next team owner or player may be singled out and sanctioned for homophobic views expressed in the privacy of their homes or for sexist and maybe anti-Semitic speech. This is what Commissioner Silver has wrought. Racist and other offensive words and ideas cannot be banned -- but they can and should be disputed and repudiated by people of good will. But those people of good will must also speak up for the principles and protections accorded free expression and privacy interests which are fundamental to the preservation of a free society and our democracy.

Meyers is executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition; Siegel, a civil rights attorney, is former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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