A constitutional right does not mean you are immune from consequences
I find it both ironic and sad that the amendment that lays out some of our base freedoms is so clearly misunderstood by the citizenry it protects:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Sterling’s free-speech rights were never at issue in the NBA’s decision to ban him for life and to fine him $2.5 million and possibly forcing him to sell his Clippers over racist remarks he made while being recorded by his former girlfriend. He said what he said and the government didn’t do squat about it.
At its core, the First Amendment is protection from government interference based on the spoken or written word. But, contrary to what many people seem to believe, the First Amendment never offered carte blanche protection from the consequences of saying something stupid or irresponsible.
Therefore, while Sterling certainly was free to say what he said, he was never free from the consequences.
It is the same for you and me in our everyday lives. We can say whatever we want, but we might lose friendships for saying it, even risk losing a job or customers.
But even in law, there are limits to free speech, and such limitations are constitutional. Journalists are protected from government interference when it comes to reporting the truth, event when that truth is damaging to a public official’s reputation. Defamation laws, however, are in place — libel laws pertain to the printed word, slander to the spoken — to curb abuse of that freedom, so that, for example, a news organization does not carelessly or maliciously publish false information about someone.
There are plenty of other exceptions besides that most should be aware of simply from everyday experiences or common knowledge.
For example, you can be prosecuted for yelling "fire" in a crowded theater, and if you are caught lying after swearing in court to tell the truth, you can be prosecuted for perjury.
Some find this counterintuitive, because they look at the text of the First Amendment and see the words “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …” But they forget that the Constitution is a foundational document. It is the basis for the other laws to protect the citizenry — even from those who exercise their rights.
So, while I have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” as stated in the Declaration of Independence and defined in the Constitution, I do not have the right to pursue that happiness by robbing a bank, because doing so would impinge on the rights of the owners of that bank. For the same reason, local governments have building codes designed to ensure public safety and to set standards to ensure one homeowner’s actions do not injure another’s.
Donald Sterling was within his rights to say what he said, and the NBA was within its rights to penalize him. This was not an issue about governance.
But, as former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar pointed out in a piece he wrote for Time, Sterling has had run-ins with the government that certainly reflect back on the racist remarks he reportedly made to his former girlfriend.
According to Abdul-Jabbar’s piece, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Sterling in 2006 and 2009 for housing discrimination — the first suit alleged discrimination against blacks, the second against blacks, Hispanics, and families with children.
He also was sued in 2009 by a Clippers executive for reported age- and race-based employment discrimination.
So for those who believe the First Amendment gives a free rein to say anything without fear of retribution, be careful. The U.S. Constitution does give you the right to free speech, but there are limits, and there are consequences for those who exceed those limits.
Sterling certainly has the freedom to embrace even the outrageous beliefs he reportedly has expressed. But he also has paid a price after he apparently put some of those beliefs into action in terms of housing and employment. In the case of his NBA penalties, he’s paying a price for expressing idiot views in a way that could harm that organization, not to mention piss off a lot of people, whether they are basketball fans or not.