Clippers, Redskins, Freedom of Speech and the Power of Government

Clippers, Redskins, Freedom of Speech and the Power of Government

Not being a pro basketball fan, I had never heard of Donald Sterling prior to the dustup over his crude remarks about African Americans, as taped by his purported girlfriend. It was ugly, and I don’t blame the NBA for enforcing their code of conduct and forcing him to sell the franchise to Steve Balmer, albeit for a tidy profit. When a person purchases an NBA franchise, they sign the league Partnership Agreement, and 75% of the other owners can drum him out of the league for any infraction they deem not in the best interests of the game. That is a private agreement among business owners, and I have no problem with it. In my opinion, he got what he deserved.

But now we come to the matter of the Washington Redskins. The name “Redskins” has been the franchise moniker for decades, so its use cannot be construed as a personal offense by current owner Dan Snyder. I’m personally indifferent to the issue, and I suspect most people have more pressing concerns to worry about. During Sunday’s thrilling Eagles-Redskins game, I doubt any of the 70,000 in attendance were thinking of the name issue. But for those who are lobbying for a name change, that’s fine — they should put whatever pressure they can (ticket and merchandise sales, sponsorships, television viewership, etc.) on Snyder, and see where the chips fall. If he agrees to a name change, so be it.

The problem I have is with the pressure being mounted by the federal government, both directly and indirectly. President Obama, Attorney General Holder, and Federal Communications Commissioner Tom Wheeler have all weighed in on the matter publicly, indicating they think the name should be changed. To use the words of a Wheeler spokesman, “we hope he (Snyder) can see which way this thing is going”. Hmm, does anybody feel a slight freedom of speech chill?

More directly, former FCC commissioners Reed HUndt, Jonathan Adelstein and Nicholas Johnston have written to Wheeler that an indecency case could be brought against broadcasters who air the name.

Finally, the U.S. Patent Office has issued a ruling that the team cannot protect their “Redskins” trademark. That decision has not been put into effect pending appeal, and there is a lot of lawyering that will take place on that issue before the Trademark ruling is decided.

Let’s let the free market work. It did so in the case of Sterling and the other NBA owners. It may work in the Redskins matter in the form of economic pressures brought about by the free market (although I doubt it).

But above all, let’s keep the government out of it. That’s a slippery slope we all need to avoid.

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