Being a racist is an awful thing. But should it cost you your job?
That is no longer an academic question for Donald Sterling and Robert Copeland, both of whom have been publicly excoriated and essentially fired for making outrageous, race-related comments. Sterling, of course, is the Los Angeles Clippers owner caught on tape demanding that his nearly-as-irritating, but apparently not racist, girlfriend, not show up to NBA games with black people. Sterling, for some reason, seems to have forgotten that there are a lot of African-Americans on the basketball court, but perhaps he consoles himself by convincing himself that he actually owns the black men themselves, and not just the team.
Then there is Copeland, who was the head of the tiny police department in bucolic Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. Copeland, sitting in a restaurant in the wealthy and visually spectacular town which bills itself as America’s “first resort” town, was overheard using the N-word in reference to President Obama. And like Sterling, Copeland didn’t even bother to deny the comments or explain them in some manufactured context. Instead, Copeland emailed fellow police commissioners:
Calls came for Copeland’s ouster, from Democrats and Republicans alike. And late Sunday night, the 82-year-old Copeland acquiesced, agreeing to step down from the job.
Sterling is not going so quietly. He has been fined $2.5 million – a fee he is refusing, for the time being, to pay – and has been banned from the games. The league has filed a formal complaint and has set a June hearing to attempt to strip Sterling of his ownership of the team, a punishment Sterling also is fighting.
On their collective face, the cases look like some high-profile form of political correctness, demonizing people for speaking their minds, no matter how offensive the thoughts are. But that’s not what’s at issue here (and “political correctness” is a term often used to justify not exercising basic good manners and tolerance of others). Yes, both men have a right to say what they think, however awful it is, and they have the right to say it out loud. They do not have the right to say such things and continue to serve in either publicly-paid positions (as Copeland was in) or in jobs that have a collateral impact on the image of others (such as Sterling’s ownership of the Clippers does with the NBA).
The First Amendment merely protects people from facing government punishment for speaking their minds. It doesn’t guarantee job security, respect or even friends for people who deeply insult others with the most heinous terms. Public shunning is a powerful tool – perhaps more powerful than incarceration or monetary fines. (And Sterling, it should be noted, has managed to buy his way out of being punished for his racism, settling a major race discrimination case.) The old adage holds true: I may disagree with what you said, but I’ll fight for the death to protect your right to say it. And we also maintain the right to deprive those racists of a megaphone.