Monday, April 02, 2007

Freedom of Speech comes at a price

Freedom of speech is an inalienable right. In a country engineered to foster and protect personal civil liberty nobody should feel legally obligated to remain silent. The United States of America became a country for a number of reasons and not all of them were good. Clearly some of our revered Founding Fathers had ulterior motives for rebelling against England. Our political system was built upon a network of cronyism and a consolidation of power within the confines of an aristocratic society. To this day that consolidation of power is abundantly evident, particularly when you look at the last two presidential elections. Bush and Kerry not only attended the same expensive university (Yale) they belonged to a secret fraternity that has a long history of enlisting very rich and powerful people. The eerie possibility of a conspiracy aside, this country was still founded on some pretty important concepts that provide common people with a considerable amount of influence. The first amendment protects one of those concepts. The most important concept.

The Constitution essentially spells out the rules. It doesn’t establish the laws of the land but rather outlines the authority of the government. The Constitution doesn’t specifically address crimes but it does limit what can be interpreted as a crime. Murder is a crime because it involves one person infringing upon another’s right to life where as the issue of flag burning is widely debated because it can be argued that burning the flag is a form of expression which is an extension of the first amendment. Abortion is also a confounding subject because we have not been able to establish a legal standard to determine when a human life qualifies for constitutional rights. Everybody has an opinion but nobody has an answer.

Freedom of speech or, to be more accurate, expression is the cornerstone of liberty. If people are permitted to question and criticize their government, their government will have to address those grievances or face the consequences in the next election. This power was clearly demonstrated quite recently when the Republicans finally exhausted the patience of the voters. Without the first amendment the Bush administration could have quashed every story about Iraq, prevented public inquiries into corruption and avoided accountability for questionable actions. The great thing about the first amendment is that it applies to and empowers everybody.

The bad thing about the first amendment is that it applies to everybody regardless of sensibility. So you have gutter dwellers like Andrew Dice Clay making a career out of being a vulgar, less intelligent version of Don Rickles. Hickory, Dickory Dock… As offensive as his alleged comedy routine might be, he has a right to perform it. Fortunately the first amendment also provides puppets like Triumph the Insult Comic Dog the right to offer a much wittier version of this form of expression. It’s sad when you’re beaten at your own game by a rubber hand puppet, but Dice also has a constitutionally protected right to ignore the obvious and beat the dead horse that is his lackluster career. There is no law against being a bloated, washed up hack.

The first amendment allows people to peacefully assemble. That means that thousands of people can come together for a free concert to raise awareness for world hunger. Unfortunately it also means that the KKK can hold a rally on public property anywhere in the country. As morally corrupt as the KKK is to reasonable people, denying them the right to express themselves would be based on subjective reasoning and open the door to denying anybody that same right. There are plenty of examples where the first amendment has been compromised for good and bad intentions.

Tony Dungy recently exercised his first amendment rights when he spoke at a banquet hosted by the Indiana Family Group. IFG is an independent arm of Focus on the Family and Dungy touched a nerve when he stated that he whole-heartedly endorses the group’s position on gay marriage. Being a right wing faction of fundamentalist zealots, they are against it. Dungy later insisted he is not gay bashing, but that he believes in biblical scriptures and strongly supports the idea that a family is best served by a traditional Christian union between a man and a woman. It sparked a lot of criticism.

People countered the criticism Dungy received by citing the first amendment. Dungy has a right to express himself. So does Tim Hardaway who said that he hates gays. Dungy didn’t come out and bash gays the way Hardaway did but both men were simply exercising their right to express themselves. Dungy hit the first amendment trifecta by involving speech, press and religion. As was his right as an American.

However those who choose to criticize Dungy are also exercising their right to express themselves. Just because we are free to speak our minds doesn’t mean we are exempt for the consequences. How many coaches have lost their jobs for letting racially insensitive remarks slip? Dozens. And rightfully so. Sometimes an employee can express themselves in such a manner that the reputation of the company might suffer. This is especially true in high profile jobs. So when Howard Cosell said something about a monkey getting loose ABC had to fire him even though nobody believed Howard Cosell was a bigot.

That’s why the NBA was well within its rights to distance the league from Tim Hardaway. He’s no longer welcome in the NBA family and barred from attending events as a representative of the NBA. He might still have the right to purchase a ticket and watch the game like any other fan but he won’t be sitting in the owner’s box or appearing on television as a sanctioned member of the NBA.

Similarly the Colts would have been justified in firing Tony Dungy is they felt his comments might have a negative impact on the team. The NFL could have taken action as well. Neither organization is leaping to Dungy’s defense but both have distanced themselves from reprimanding Dungy on this matter. Dungy was speaking on behalf of Tony Dungy, not the Colts or the NFL. He made his bed.

Joe Lunchbox might not be held similarly accountable for his actions. People don’t always pay attention when the average person has something to say. So when Joe Lunchbox publishes a racially inflammatory blog he might not loose his job, but he still runs that risk. People are finding themselves in hot water over what they publish on the internet and those companies actions are being upheld in the courts. That’s why Klansmen wear sheets over their heads. They realize they are taking a socially unacceptable position and until they can convince the rest of society to embrace their views, or at least make a living spewing hate like David Duke, they remain anonymous.

Still, this right to free speech is interesting. In addition to affording people the right to express unpopular opinions while affording others the right to criticize or support those opinions, the first amendment also allows people to question the motives behind the comments. That’s more compelling. It’s not important to discuss whether or not the statement is right or wrong, opinions don’t have to be either. However it is important to consider the motivation behind those comments. Perhaps there’s more to the story and a discerning public has every right to explore it.

In Tim Hardaway’s case it’s quite likely that he is gay himself. There’s no proof of that but typically people who are so vocally homophobic are reacting to their own confused sexuality. Hardaway is probably terrified that he will be revealed as not only a homosexual, but a submissive one at that. He’s carefully tried to fashion himself as a man’s man but he knows the fa├žade is thin. In order to overcome the fancy clothes, expensive jewelry and unaccounted for late nights with “friends”, Hardaway has to seem so overly disgusted with homosexuality nobody could believe it. Sadly, he’s too stupid to know that we’ve been on to that

Tony Dungy didn’t seem insecure about homosexuality but it’s interesting that his concern on this subject is rooted in the health and welfare of the family unit. That’s very interesting. Given the tragic loss his family recently experienced, Dungy shouldn’t present himself as an authority on what makes for a healthy family. His son, James Dungy took his own life at the age of 18. Now all public accounts characterize Dungy as a great father and a dedicated husband but anytime a teenager takes his or her own life there’s always something amiss inside the family.

Is that a low blow? No. It’s a reasonable question. Dungy put himself in that position when he questioned the impact homosexual parents might have on children. Most kids stray from the ideal path as they try their wings. Underage drinking, drug experimentation, even minor brushes with the law are common but suicide is rare. Most suicide attempts aren’t even sincere, they’re just dramatic ploys for attention and sympathy. If Tony Dungy was such a great Christian father, why did James take his own life? More importantly, what makes Dungy feel he knows what’s in the best interests of a family? Could homosexual parents do much worse?

It could be argued that Dungy did everything right. Sometimes kids just screw up. That might be true if the child dies in a stupidity induced accident. If James Dungy had gotten drunk and fallen off a cliff it would be hard to point the finger at Dungy, but this wasn’t an accident. James Dungy took his own life and it wasn’t the first time he tried. The kid was clearly in pain and couldn’t face whatever was causing that pain. Maybe he was gay and unable to talk to his devout father. Maybe he was bipolar and Tony was too busy being a coach to get his son the help he needed. We’ll never know the real answer but there’s a good chance that Tony Dungy does.

And that doesn’t matter. Tony Dungy has to face those demons on his own but when he takes that public forum and goes on record with such a strong statement he forces people to question his credibility. Given the circumstances Tony Dungy is no authority on family. If Tony had spent a little more time with his family and a little less at all of those speaking engagements James Dungy might still be alive today. Whatever the case, people probably should consider the source before putting any stock in Dungy’s opinion.

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