Donald Sterling is an ass.
I have known that longer than you have. My brother, who is also a lawyer, worked for him in the mid-’70s. Plus, I grew up in San Diego, where the Clippers basketball team was born and where Donald Sterling was referred to, lovelessly, as the worst owner in the sport.
That said, he, or you, or I have the right to be an ass. It’s (sort of) embodied in the U.S. Constitution and is supported by abundant case law.
RACIST RANT IN QUESTION
Unless you’re just back from the North Pole, you know that Sterling was recently recorded in a hateful, bigoted rant to his girlfriend in which he dissed African Americans in general and Magic Johnson in particular. Magic Johnson, forgodsake; isn’t that like peeing on the flag? The guy is a beloved icon!
Anyway, what he said, in polite terms, is that he doesn’t care for blacks, deems them inferior and would prefer not to rub elbows with those who, through their talents, have made him a very, very rich man. The guy apparently detected no irony whatsoever in what he said to his Latina-American paramour.
Spankin’ new Commissioner of Basketball Adam Silver fined Sterling $2.5 million (equivalent to roughly to a pack of gum for you and me), banned him from any association with the Clippers for life (the guy is 80 years old for criminy’s sake) and said he would immediately recommend to the NBA Board of Governors that they force a sale of the Clippers and that he would do “everything in (his) power to ensure that happens.”
AN ISSUE OF FREE SPEECH
Mark Cuban, the progressive owner of the Dallas Mavericks, said that while he thought that Sterling’s comments were reprehensible and though Commissioner Silver took the right actions, wasn’t there an issue of free speech here?
Here are words I thought I’d never utter: I’m with Cuban (philosophically at least if not financially — but one can dream!).
Let’s get this straight: Sterling is a lout; an ignoramus; with apologies to Neanderthals, a low-functioning Neanderthal; a racist; an ingrate; a loudmouth; and a fool.
But here’s the rub; the Constitution gives us the right — each one of us — to be a fool. It’s called freedom of expression. Bear in mind, however much as you, or I, or Commissioner Silver, or Michael Jordan, or anyone else rightly abhors what came out of Donald Sterling’s mouth — and what’s apparently in his heart — his was a private conversation. And however we might disagree with him, he has the utter and absolute right to say it.
THE FIRST AMENDMENT
The Constitution as you likely know is divided into several parts. There are articles and sections and various amendments, the first of which (which has the pride of primacy) is, logically, the First Amendment, which provides in full: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
These are, many would argue, the most fundamental rights of citizenship: freedom from (and “of”) religion; the right to peaceably assemble; the right to criticize the government; freedom of the press; and freedom of speech (and, therefore, of thought).
It has been borne out time and time again that every American, unless they reasonably threatens palpable harm to others, can speak their mind and heart.
A HATEFUL PRECEDENT
Let me give you a hateful example. The recently deceased founding “pastor” of the Westboro Church, Fred Phelps, was a man who eked hatred from his every pore. With his band of black-hearted followers, he picketed events from Lady Gaga concerts to the funerals of slain U.S. soldiers brandishing signs with slogans such as “God hates fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.” Phelps was a hateful fool on a fool’s mission if there ever was one.
And yet ...
In 2011, the Supreme Court upheld Westboro’s right to picket military funerals on free speech grounds. What the court held, although on more eloquent terms, was, hatemonger that Phelps might be, he had a right to make a fool of himself instead of being censured. The Constitution guaranteed it.
STERLING HAS RIGHTS
And so it is, I argue, with Donald Sterling. Loathe him? Get in line behind me. Boycott his games? I vote yes. Have advertising dollars flee from him like rats from a sinking ship? Sure; I’d think less of whoever sponsors him it they didn’t leave him twisting in the wind.
But one’s property cannot be confiscated simply because of what one thinks or says. A sale cannot and should not be “forced” upon him. That’s simply un-American. If the market brings him down, that’s one thing, but to have the other owners vote him out — and I have abiding suspicions that may not be legally upheld — is quite another.
One has the right to be a bigot, and we have the equal right to shun a bigot. We do not, however, have the right to deprive Donald Sterling of his rights simply because what he says is wrong, abhorrent or unpopular. Our heritage as nation is firmly to the contrary.
TIME TO MOVE ON
By the way, the media barrage (which I am, admittedly contributing to here) notwithstanding, this is not the most important story in the world.
Although it affords a “teaching moment” and an opportunity to examine the current state of race in America, more important things are going on. By shining too keen a light on it, we give bigotry and small-mindedness too much attention.
Let’s move on to more important things. And leave Donald Sterling behind in his own small puddle of ignorance and isolation.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his email addresses, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.