Buying Free Speech

There’s something I finally realized about Donald Sterling:  He just doesn’t care.

And far more important:  He doesn’t have to care.

Here is a guy—the for-the-moment owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers—who is worth somewhere north of a billion dollars.  Who could own a home in every state and park a yacht in every port.  Whose $2.5 million fine from the NBA for telling his mistress not to associate with African Americans is proverbial chump change, compared to what remains in the Sterling family vault.

Indeed, Sterling could continue to say horrible things about black people for the rest of his natural life, and he would go right on marinating in a lap of luxury the rest of us can scarcely even conceive.  He could be fined and otherwise “penalized” over and over again for his abject wretchedness, and it would all be nothing more than a drop in the financial bucket.  In the grand scheme of his lavish lifestyle, Sterling wouldn’t feel a thing.

Over the years, we Americans have come to grudgingly accept that there are certain things rich people can get away with that the rest of us cannot.  For instance, wealthy folks have a way of manipulating the U.S. tax code in ways the less well-off tend not to do.  The haves can afford the high-priced lawyers and endless litigation processes that often enable them to evade well-deserved time in prison—an advantage rarely heaped upon the have-nots.

But what the Sterling episode so handsomely illustrates and underlines is an equally (if not more) worrisome facet of America’s class divide, and that is the fact that, in practice, rich people have a disproportionate right to the freedom of speech.  As with so much else, the ability to escape the consequences of unwelcome free expression is something that can ultimately be bought.

Consider:  Were some fast-food employee, living on minimum wage, to be found to harbor and express the exact views presently attributed to Sterling, such a person would presumably be dismissed from his job for reasons of fostering a hostile work environment—and justifiably so.  From this point, he would then be unemployed and possibly unemployable, getting by on practically nothing and becoming extraordinarily hesitant (not without reason) to exercise his First Amendment rights ever again.

For this hypothetical working man, the presence of nasty, ignorant views is very nearly a matter of life of death.

For a guy like Sterling?  Not so much.

To be sure, $2.5 million is one heck of a sum to surrender for the “crime” of being a bad person, and one with which a lower-class person would obviously never be slapped.  As well, no one has credibly argued that racism in the workplace is acceptable under any circumstances.  Whether the racist in question is rich or poor, the basic rules of social etiquette are the same.  The right to say what is on one’s mind does not imply the right to avoid the consequences of doing so.

But let us not pretend that there is not a universe of difference in the real-world application of this principle.

The NBA’s exorbitant fine for Sterling’s ugliness—or, say, the comparable figures leveled upon Howard Stern for “indecency” at various points in his career—only goes to show what blessed lives our most wealthy brethren lead.  To restate my original point:  If you’re a billionaire, can a loss of $2.5 million really be considered a “punishment” at all?

No.  Rich people’s well-being cannot finally be put under threat because of what they say or think.  They’ll always be able to pay their way to ever more freedom.

In the 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the high court established the principle (at least in the popular mind) that money is a form of speech, and therefore that campaign contributions need not be subject to certain limits.  This implied that the more money you have, the more “speech” you are able to express in the midst of a political campaign, meaning that the degree of one’s influence on public officials is dependent almost entirely on one’s wealth.  More than ever, Citizens United demonstrated that money equals power.

Alarming as this was (and is), the dynamic of which I speak is slightly different and even more invidious, because it extends this premise well beyond politics and into every sphere of American life.

It’s one thing for wealth to inflate the lengths to which your free speech might extend.  It’s quite another for that wealth to determine whether you have the right to free speech at all.

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