The month of April brought to national attention two bigots, one more sympathetic than the other, and the need for a soul searching discussion over what Freedom of Speech really means to us.
First came Brendan Eich: the hapless CEO who lost his job within months, because of his political opinions. Immediately after being crowned as CEO of the Mozilla foundation, controversy broke as news emerged that he’s personally opposed to gay marriage, and had made campaign contributions in favor of banning gay marriage. A number of internet websites immediately took up arms against Eich being the Mozilla CEO; famously, OkCupid, a popular dating site, even began pressuring their firefox users to switch to other browsers. Mozilla employees were up in arms as well, with a number of them threatening to quit, refusing to work under Eich given his beliefs. Within weeks, the camel’s back broke & Eich resigned from what would have been the pinnacle of his career.
As someone with a number of gay friends, I simply cannot understand why someone would be so opposed to gay marriage. But at the same time, the idea of someone losing his job because of his beliefs strikes me as being just as unsavory. Inspirationally, even gay rights activists, the same people who would have been discriminated against by Eich’s beliefs, stepped forward to speak out against Eich’s treatment & forced resignation. Eich may have been a bigot, but at least he was a sympathetic one.
The air had barely cleared, before the next controversy broke & made Eich old news. LA Clippers owner, and one of America’s richest men, billionaire Donald Sterling, was caught on tape asking his 50-years-junior girlfriend not to put up pictures of herself with black men, and not to bring them to his games. Reactions were swift & well-deserved. A shocked nation found itself in awe that even in 2014, one of its richest men could still espouse such racist beliefs. Sterling found himself condemned from all sides, with only the white supremacists to support him. A few days later, when the NBA proposed stripping Sterling of his ownership of the LA Clippers, there was hardly a word of protest.
My own initial reaction was a simple “good riddance.” If there’s one last thing America needs right now, it’s an NBA franchise owner who’s espousing racist views. It’s hard to find anything sympathetic with this man.
But with time, as I started to compare Donald Sterling with Brendan Eich, I started to realize that their stories were more similar than I, and most people, were willing to admit. Racism might be taboo, but homophobia is only starting to get there. Sterling may not have wanted his girlfriend to associate with black men in her personal life, but Eich went a step further & tried to entrench homophobia in American Law. And now, just as Eich found his career & economic opportunities denied because of his personal beliefs, Sterling too is facing the same economic persecution vis-a-vis the LA Clippers ownership. As much as I hate to admit it, Donald Sterling is just as sympathetic a character as Brendan Eich.
But this isn’t just a story about two rich & powerful bigots. This is a soul searching discussion about what Freedom of Speech really means to us. Too many people invoke the First Amendment incorrectly, claiming that it allows them to say whatever they want in any forum, without having to face any backlash. In truth, the First Amendment is simply a law that defends us from legal prosecution. It certainly does not protect us from economic & social backlash, and it most certainly does not require the owners of private forums to put up with controversial speech.
That said, Freedom of Speech goes beyond simply the First Amendment. Freedom of Speech isn’t just an American Law; it’s a statement of principle. It’s a principle that states that societies flourish best when individuals are free to espouse ideas & opinions, without needing to worry about facing persecution because of those beliefs. It’s a principle that states that such immunity from persecution is essential to setting up a strong & vibrant Marketplace of Ideas, that enables society to grow & progress. The First Amendment helps support this cause, by providing us immunity from legal persecution.
But legal persecution isn’t the only form of persecution out there. Economic persecution can be just as dangerous as legal persecution. What’s the point of being granted freedom & liberty, if economic persecution dooms you & your family to a life of abject poverty & indigence? Is it right for opponents of slavery in the 1800s to be fired from well-deserved jobs because of their beliefs? Wouldn’t civil rights supporters in the 1950s think twice before espousing their beliefs, if their economic livelihood was on the line? Do we want to live in a society where our bosses are free to fire us if they do not agree with our personal beliefs?
If this seems like a new argument, it certainly isn’t. The US legal system, recognizing the importance of fair economic treatment, already prohibits economic discrimination on the basis of many qualities. People are free to consider race when choosing their life partners, but they are certainly prohibited from considering race when making hiring decisions. People are free to discriminate on the basis of gender when choosing their friends & social circles, but certainly not when economic contracts are on the line. We as a society have already decided that many qualities such as race, religion & gender are all deserving of protection in the economic sphere. If we truly believe in the importance of Freedom of Speech, shouldn’t we add personal beliefs & opinions to this list?
It’s tempting to exclude people like Donald Sterling from our sympathies. It’s easy to understand the arguments against granting bigots economic protection. “Racism is wrong. Homophobia is wrong.” These are sentiments that I certainly agree with personally.
But Freedom of Speech is all about how we react when confronted with beliefs that we vehemently disagree with. The whole concept of a marketplace of ideas is useless if it only comprises of ideas that we agree with. “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” We may certainly disagree with Donald Sterling’s racist opinions. But are we willing to defend his right to say it?
Our legal system has wisely recognized the importance of economic persecution, and protects us from economic discrimination on the basis of race, religion & gender. If we truly believe in the importance of Freedom of Speech, it’s time we added personal opinions to this list.