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Thursday, May 08, 2014
Donald Sterling and free speech
There have been scattered rumblings about the problem of the NBA sanctioning Donald Sterling for protected, although offensive, speech. Obviously, this is not a First Amendment problem, since the NBA is a wholly private actor. But we might call it a free speech problem, in that Sterling did suffer a sanction for expressing his opinions. And because it may be difficult to draw the line between this case and people speaking on other matters of people controversy (marriage equality, gay rights, abortion, whatever) and possibly offending someone, the specter of league-imposed suspensions for political speech looms.
Mike Dorf looks for a principled line and finds it in a broad conception of harassment, such that once Sterling's racist views became public, his continued position as owner "created a kind of hostile work environment." While this is not enough to violate Title VII, Dorf argues that private firms often adopt prophylactic policies that go beyond what the law requires. He thus urges the NBA to defend the punishment on those grounds, rather than on his offensive speech simpliciter.
There is an appeal to this view, especially as a post hoc explanation for what the league did and as a way to isolate what Sterling did as something unique. But I wonder if the principle can be easily cabined. Any controversial policy could be recast as creating this sort of hostile environment--an openly LGBT player may find it hostile that the owner or a teammate contributes to anti-marriage equality causes, just as a devoutly religious player may find it hostile that a teammate opposes Christian prayer before public meetings, just as an Dominican player may find it hostile that a teammate supports heightened immigration enforcement. Maybe this is just the worst kind of slippery-slope anxiety--no league is going to suspend anyone for being involved in genuine social and political causes and we should not dignify what Sterling did by comparing it genuine political involvement. But I am not convinced Sterling (or to go back a longer time, former MLB pitcher John Rocker) only a difference of degree, not kind.
But if not Dorf's approach, then what?One possibility is to try to distinguish speech (and wrongful non-speech activities) that genuinely relates to one's part or role on a team and in the league from speech that does not, with only the former providing a basis for league sanction. I thought about a version of this in thinking about what the league should have done a decade ago with the various racialized civil actions Sterling was involved in.
Now, this may not be any better, since it does not necessarily avoid those same line-drawing problems. Just as a league always can say X's involvement in a hot-button political controversy "creates a kind of hostile work environment," so can a league always say X's involvement in a hot-button political controversy relaates to his role on the team (often by throwing out the buzzword of creating "distractions in the lockerroom"). This saves us having to define and develope a new concept such as "kind of hostile work environment." But we still have to figure out what "genuinely relates" to one's role on the team. Another approach is for private entities to import some kind of Pickering balance, although that remains squishy and malleable enough to still cause problems.
None of this changes my basic view that the NBA has the authority to force the sale (and probably to suspend) Sterling and that these sanctions should hold up if/when he challenges them in court. But Dorf is onto something about not what the league can do, but what it ought to do.