As a kid, I always took great comfort in FDR’s “Four Freedoms.” For those of you who need a refresher, Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR, President of the USA during the Great Depression and most of WWII), articulated four freedoms to people “everywhere in the world” in his January 6, 1941 State of the Union address. Those four freedoms were:
1- Freedom of speech and expression;
2- Freedom of worship;
3- Freedom from want;
4- Freedom from fear.
I always focused on #3 and #4 since the US Constitution and Bill of Rights guarantees #1 and #2, but to achieve the last two requires effort and a “frame of mind” that varies among individuals. In my lifetime, however, I am amazed at how misunderstood our most basic American right … Freedom of Speech … seems to be!
My inspiration this week comes from Ozzie Guillen, the 48-year-old Venezuelan manager of baseball’s Miami Marlins. In an interview with Time magazine last week, Guillen said “I love Fidel Castro,” adding that he respects the retired Cuban dictator for staying in power so long.
The incendiary outrage those comments caused in the Cuban community of Miami seemed to take the normally unflappable Guillen by surprise. He apologized three days in a row and, when that was not enough, he appeared at a team-led news conference this week to “officially apologize” before drawing a 5-game suspension without pay. As is so often the case in such instances, Guillen said his comments were “misinterpreted” and that he doesn’t love or admire the dictator. “I was saying I cannot believe somebody who hurt so many people over the years is still alive,” Guillen told the news conference. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!
Supporters of Guillen proclaim he is free to say what he wants since “this is America!” No one argues that. What amazes me is that while you are free to say anything you like, you must also allow others their freedom to speak and respond as well. And all speech is NOT created equal. Words as well as sticks & stones can be quite hurtful. And when you enrage the ticket-buying base of a baseball team, there are consequences. That’s why I believe that before this is over, Guillen will lose his job over his pathetic choice of words. He’s followed the path of liberal lefties like Oliver Stone, Michael Moore and Sean Penn in praising a man responsible for mass murder, torture, political enslavement and the anguish of untold millions. How foolish!
The very first amendment to the US Constitution guarantees Freedom of Speech. The 14th Amendment opened the path empowering that same freedom at the state level. It was the belief that free speech and free press were essential to the birth of liberty that gave rise to men like Thomas Paine and Paul Revere in our nation’s formative years. But while we all understand that process, few seem to understand that freedom of speech also means “responsibility” for speech. Others have the right to be offended and take action based on the spoken word.
My first recollection of this truth came in March 1966. John Lennon (of Beatles’ fame), during their peak of the “Fab Four’s” popularity, made the following comment to writer Maureen Cleave from England’s Evening Standard newspaper (4 March 1966) as part of an interview:
“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue with that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus.”
This statement sparked protests across the Bible Belt in America and the band’s records were burned en masse. My father banned their music in our home immediately.
Pundits and spin-doctors immediately took the common defense in such cases … quoted out of context … but it did little to stem the “anti-Beatles” tide across conservative USA. Lennon stepped back to the plate in August 1966 and made this apology:
“I’m sorry I opened my mouth. I’m not anti-God, anti-Christ, or anti-religion. I wasn’t knocking it or putting it down. I was just saying it as a fact and it’s true more for England than here. I’m not saying that we’re better or greater, or comparing us with Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is. I just said what I said and it was wrong.”
For the record, the Vatican accepted his apology. But any chance of the band overtaking Elvis in popularity was gone like Yesterday! (Sorry … I had to do it)! The point is that Lennon had every right to say what he did, but he used poor judgment in an industry where encouraging the public to buy your product is the key to your livelihood.
Similar to Guillen’s poorly thought out Castro comment, there was the May 1996 comment by Cincinnati Reds’ owner Marge Schott. In case you’ve forgotten, the German-born Schott said this on ESPN about the granddaddy of all bad guys, Adolph Hitler:
“Everything you read, when he came in [to power] he was good…They built tremendous highways and got all the factories going…Everybody knows he was good at the beginning but he just went too far.”
Went too far? Yes, I suppose he did. But the body of work this Nazi psycho did and the millions of lives he terminated through his vision of hatred and world domination sort of overshadows ANY possibility of finding ANYTHING good about him, doesn’t it? Schott’s apologies fell on deaf ears. She eventually sold the team in the aftermath of her comments.
I suppose one final example … one near and dear to my heart … came in 2003 while I was attending the Royal College of Defence Studies in London. While giving a concert in the same city, Dixie Chicks’ singer Natalie Maines (10-days before the invasion began) said to the crowd:
“We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States (Bush) is from Texas”
I will write more on Maines and the Chicks next week when I discuss my “best day” in Iraq in 2004, but suffice it to say, her comment offended many country music fans who thought it rude and unpatriotic. The ensuing controversy fanned by politicians and mass media led to the eventual cancellation of their American tour that year, hate mail, death threats, and the public destruction of their albums in protest. The band never returned to the level of popularity they enjoyed prior to her poorly timed invocation of free speech. John Lennon would have known better!
Like many before and after her, Maines seemed stunned that she was called to task for “free speech,” forgetting that others have the same freedom. And that’s what we must remember today. Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing but, like all true freedom, it comes with a weight of responsibility.
Early 20th Century writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton once wrote, “To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.” Sage advice! But if that’s too hard to fathom, there’s always Mark Twain, who was likely thinking about people like Guillen, Lennon, Schott and Maines when he said:
“Tis better for those about you to think you ignorant than for you to open your mouth and remove all doubt!”
Do you have an example near and dear to you where free speech caused much pain and discontent? Share it with us here, and thanks for reading!