No Offense, cont.

By Wendy Kaminer

        Embarrassing publicity seems to have convinced U.S.  Bridge Federation officials not to persist in retaliating against members of the U.S. Women’s Bridge Team for holding up sign proclaiming “We did not vote for Bush” at an awards ceremony in Shanghai.  (See “No Offense,” below)  A settlement was reached with the players just before the team captain was scheduled to appear on CBS’s The Early Show.

        New York Times reporter Stephanie Strom broke this story on November 14th; the Times editorial board followed up the next day with a brief opinion piece denouncing the federation’s actions as “un-American, unsporting and counterproductive.”  The editorial appeared on a Thursday; by the following Tuesday, the free speech skirmish was over, with federation officials in full retreat.
        Obviously, this story illustrates the power of the press, but note that it’s a power exercised indirectly.  Bridge federation officials do not appear to have caved because the New York Times disapproved of their actions; they caved because their own constituents  -- active bridge players -- disapproved of them, or, at least, feared the effects of a public controversy over speech.  The November 14th story helped activate support for the women’s bridge team: People were encouraged to email federation officials with their protests, one elite player told me; as the Times observed, when efforts to punish the women’s team for a moment of political speech were disclosed, “a vocal group of opponents began a campaign to force the federation to drop its demands.”

        So this little victory for free speech (a major victory for the people involved, of course,) is not simply a testament to the power of the press; it’s a testament to the power of stakeholders (whether citizens or members of private associations) to keep their governments or associations honest -- if they choose to honor the obligation to do so.  If the great majority of bridge players had spoken out in support of the federations’ action, if dissenters had lacked the strength of numbers and been easily marginalized and ignored, this story would probably have ended less happily, as many similar stories do.  Inevitably, the rights of minorities often depend on the majority’s willingness to honor them.

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