No Offense

By Wendy Kaminer

        Only 16% of Americans know that the First Amendment protects freedom of association, according to a 2007 survey by the Freedom Forum, while some 64% know that it protects freedom of speech.  So there’s some irony in the tendency of private organizations to use their associational freedoms to deny their members free speech.  Speech codes and thought reform programs at private colleges and universities exemplify this lamentable trend

        Now comes the United States Bridge Federation.  The New York Times reports that the women’s bridge team, which represented the U.S. at the world bridge tournament in Shanghai last year, has been threatened with “serious sanctions, including a yearlong ban from competition” for daring to display a sign at an awards dinner proclaiming “We did not vote for Bush.”

        Considering the president’s low approval rating at home and the virulent anti-Americanism he has inspired abroad, it’s easy to understand why members of the women’s bridge team wanted to clarify their own political allegiances.  (These days even people who probably did vote for Bush, like Republican presidential candidates, are eager to distance themselves from his policies.)  The team captain explained that she put up the “we did not vote for Bush” sign in response to “a lot of anti-Bush feeling,” focused, not surprisingly, on concern about torture and the war in Iraq.

        But apparently, on U.S. Bridge Federation planet, disassociating yourself from the president at an international event is at best a serious breach of decorum and at worst “treason.”  A hearing next month will determine if the women are guilty of “conduct unbecoming a federation member.”  Maybe the hearing will not be a show trial, but given the reported conduct of federation officials so far, I wouldn’t bet on their sense of humor, fairness, or respect for freedom of thought (among other ideals they seem to consider “unbecoming.")  The persecuted bridge players are being pressured to offer official apologies for their presumptively offensive speech – apologies drafted by the federation attorney.  And, they’re under pressure to name names:  According to the Times, a proposed settlement would require them to issue a statement revealing “who broached the idea of displaying the sign,” and “when the idea was adopted.”
        Of course, as a private association, the U.S. Bridge Federation has a constitutional right to operate without regard to constitutional ideals; federation officials have a right to govern like petty tyrants (although they might be subject to private, civil actions if their conduct violates federation rules or contracts with members.)  But I doubt that the officials are relying on their associational right to act badly.  I doubt that they regard their conduct as tyrannical or even disrespectful of free speech.  I suspect that they’re relying, instead, on the nonsensical belief (epidemic on college campuses) that free speech guarantees do not protect speech considered “hateful” or “offensive” – as if we’d need legal or social norms to protect friendly, inoffensive speech.  

        The women do have their supporters, but, as one elite player complained to the Times, in exercising their legal right to speak, they had offended many people:  “While I believe in the right to free speech, to me that doesn’t give anyone the right to criticize one’s leaders at a foreign venue in a totally non-politically event.”  In this Alice of Wonderland world, free speech doesn’t mean the right to speak freely.

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