Free Speech for the Rams–But Not for the Redskins

Free Speech for the Rams–But Not for the Redskins

Nat Hentoff authored a book called Free Speech for Me–But Not for Thee whose title alone rated the $13 for the paperback. More than two decades after its publication, events frequently spark thoughts of the memorable book with a more memorable title. The most recent occasion comes from the mob who wants the NFL to celebrate the symbolism at Sunday’s Rams game but suppress the symbolism at any Sunday’s Redskins game.

“Boy, the St. Louis police really know how to cool things down, don’t they?” Sally Jenkins writes in the Washington Post. “They’ve taken a controversial protest by a handful of football players, and mixed it with a whiff of bullying authority and a profound misunderstanding of the First Amendment, to create a bigger and more heated argument than it had to be. Sound familiar?”

Yes, it does. Six months ago the same writer, who now characterizes cop criticism of the “hands up, don’t shoot” demonstration at the Edward Jones Dome as a threat to the First Amendment, sought to hector Dan Snyder into changing the name of the Washington Redskins.

“The Washington football club ought to ditch its slur of a trademark, voluntarily,” Jenkins wrote in June. “It ought to do so on the grounds of basic decency and good taste, and, you’d hope, with an intelligent sense of history, context and place. If they won’t do it willingly, then the rest of us and their colleagues in the NFL ought to embarrass, jeer and cajole them into it.”

If they won’t do it willingly…

There’s nothing contradictory in supporting the Rams but decrying “Redskins.” The cognitive dissonance enters the debate when one considers a). the federal government actively seeks to suppress the Redskins and rightly remains silent on the Rams; b). employees, and perhaps this isn’t healthy but it surely passes muster legally, face sanction for embarrassing employers in a way that employers don’t by embarrassing themselves. The market punishing the latter, like the owners punishing the former, doesn’t violate the First Amendment. In other words, a hypothetical NFL punishment of the Rams players doesn’t Constitution; the actual punishment of the Redskins by various parts of the federal government does. 

In a “free speech for me, but not for thee” way, scribes condemning the Redskins as they applaud the Rams not only confuse the meaning of the Constitution’s take on freedom of speech, they conveniently ignore it altogether when it comes to an owner’s decision to name his product whatever he cares to name it.

“Rams players have every right to respond to a national event in their backyard, and to recognize their role as community figures,” the Boston Globe editorialized Tuesday. But the same editorial page lacked such full-throated enthusiasm for freedom of expression on the subject of the Washington Redskins. In explaining its decision not to use the nickname of the football team, the Globe cited, “The exploitation, prejudice, stereotyping, and betrayal of Native Americans by the US government and many other Americans is encoded in the term Redskins, however much it has grown to mean something different on the football field.”

Peter King, perhaps the most widely-read football writer in America, recently jumped on the anti-Redskins bandwagon along with the president of the United States, half the U.S. Senate, and various nameless yet powerful administrators within the federal bureaucracy. He vows not to use the nickname. While the self-censoring King joins the pitchfork mob seeking to suppress Dan Snyder’s right to free expression, he embraces a more libertarian ethos for the Rams players involved in the “hands up, don’t shoot” pose in Sunday’s blowout of the Oakland Raiders.

“Players are people,” Peter King informs (you don’t say!). “When they sign NFL contracts, it is stated nowhere that they have to give up the ability to voice their opinions or to act in sympathy with controversial causes. Too often players are silent when they see injustice or what they perceive to be injustice because it won’t be good for their brand or their team’s brand. Whatever you believe in this issue, whichever side you believe is right, it’s wrong to think that football players should not voice an opinion.”

The NFL probably cracks down on the expression of its teams’ employees too often. From negative tweets about Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend to players wearing the wrong kind of headphones, the league promiscuously metes out fines for seemingly innocuous behavior. Even if fining the Rams players would have been in keeping with the precedent of an overbearing NFL, it wouldn’t necessarily make it right. But does that mean the players possessed a right protecting them from repercussions? The league, after all, remains a private entity.

What of the Federal Communications Commission, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and fifty members of the United States Senate hassling the Washington Redskins because of their nickname? The First Amendment, which forbids not sports leagues restricting speech but Congress, pertains to the Redskins, not the Rams.

In Free Speech for Me–But Not for Thee, Hentoff petitions the reader to “imagine the First Amendment on the ballot. It is very doubtful whether it could be reaffirmed in many places without such qualifications as ‘freedom of speech, or of the press–except for racist, anti-Catholic, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and any other language offensive to any ethnic or religious groups.'”

The “free speech for the Rams, but not for the Redskins” scribes certainly embrace this understanding of a First Amendment so qualified that it speaks against the actual First Amendment.