Sat, Apr

Evolving Notions of Free Speech, and Who Gets Fired as a Result

WHO WE ARE-In 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics, two American sprinters raised the black power salute in a symbolic protest against discrimination. In retrospect, we should recognize that this protest was not only justified, it was long overdue. In a grand show of hypocrisy, the American Olympic movement attacked our victorious athletes rather than defending our supposedly most cherished principle, freedom of expression. They were not alone. After all, the Olympic movement didn't seem to mind too much doing its show in Hitler's Berlin in 1936, or in Moscow at a later time. 

Apparently it is OK under Olympic rules for dictators to dictate, but it's not OK for free people to assert their freedom of expression. I wonder why nobody thought to point out that the Olympics is profoundly anti-American in its thinking. Perhaps this shouldn't be too surprising, considering how the Olympic games have been cobbled together as an international creation. Somehow, they could have done better, but didn't. 

Things seem to be different in another venue of late. Five members of the St. Louis Rams football team did their own protest over the Ferguson, Mo. events. They raised their hands in the now-universally recognized gesture of "hands up, don't shoot!" 

The St Louis Police Department protested, but to little avail. The Rams coach actually referred to an act of freedom of speech in announcing that there would be no disciplinary action against the players. We may perhaps take a slightly more skeptical view of the team's action. After all, these athletes were of such a number -- five of them -- and in such a position -- it's hard to replace five professional football players on one team in the middle of the season, much less at the start of a game -- that they had a certain amount of bargaining power. Five members of the Rams (whatever city they are in now) engaged in an act of protest, perhaps not as dramatic as the 1968 Mexico City event, but of significance. 

The significance is not only that there is power in numbers, but that the athletes chose to protest over a public issue rather than over salaries or contracts, and that the team felt that it had to pay lip service to the concept of American freedom in its answer to a powerful government agency. 

This suggests that there has been a certain amount of evolution in our views towards freedom of speech and expression. There is still a remarkable amount of hypocrisy in the collection of views held in our nation, but something has been happening. I think we should parse out the developing concept of freedom by considering our official governmental agencies, the private sector, and what I will refer to as the quasi-official sector which contains, among other things, our professional football teams and our shopping centers. 

The government sector is not at risk, at least officially. The courts have held that the function of the First Amendment and the freedoms it entails involve the protection of unpopular views, even views that are considered repugnant by most of us. That's the meaning of the phrase, "It's a free country." You can picket the Los Angeles City Hall, and the elected officials are not supposed to machine gun you for holding anti-government views. We tend to take this thing for granted, but the nightly news ought to remind us that we have some things to be thankful for, whether it is the third Thursday of November or any other day of the year. 

Then there are the private organizations such as the company that pays your salary. Much of the United States adheres to the rule that the employer can fire you at any time, as long as your contract allows it, and you don't have a lot of rights to fight it. There are rules regarding employment discrimination, but the onus is on you to prove that something unacceptable happened. It also involves getting involved in the legal system, including the costs of lawsuits and attorneys, not to mention a lot of time to get to court. And in most cases, you won't win, particularly in a case where you said something in public that the company thinks is bad for them. You don't have a lot of freedom of speech in the private sector, particularly in the non-unionized private sector, which is most of it. 

I think that something should be done about this, but that is for a different discussion. As I've mentioned in earlier columns, there is a need for a big union that represents the vast mass of otherwise unprotected white collar workers, temps, and part timers. We would gain not only employment security, but a certain amount of freedom of speech. 

This leads to the third classification, the quasi-official sector. Remember that I mentioned shopping centers in an earlier paragraph. The courts have held that a California rule allowing people to collect petition signatures on the property of shopping centers did not violate the U.S. Constitution. That's one reason that people come up to you carrying those stacks of cardboard covered with petitions to create the latest ballot initiative. They have the legal right to do so, and you have the right to tell them no. 

Is a professional football team a quasi-official agency of the government? It's not clear to me, and I imagine that it may vary from one place to another. In most American cities that have NFL teams, there has been a considerable amount of public money that supports the team. The most dramatic cases involve large public sums going to the construction and management of stadiums. Is a stadium parking lot a public place in the legal sense that it would be a free speech zone equivalent to the sidewalk in front of the Los Angeles City Hall? I would guess that in may venues, the answer remains to be seen. 

We come to a couple of final issues, one of which includes our own neighborhood council system. But first, the issue of broadcast radio and television. 

For many years, the U.S. had a rule that controlled the way broadcast stations did politically charged material. It's been referred to as "equal time," and basically made it difficult for any one radio station to concentrate on supporting one political side over the other. The idea was based on a couple of concepts. The first is that the airwaves ostensibly belong to all of us. The radio frequency spectrum can only be divided up in so many ways, and the appropriation of radio frequencies to private companies was supposed to be done in the public interest. The other argument was that there really wasn't much to compete with broadcast radio or television at the time. 

The equal time rule provided some protection, but was overridden by presidential edict several decades ago. Since then, we've had an explosion of talk radio that tends to be conservative, and comparatively little to compete with it or regulate it. There is a grassroots movement that has been fairly effective in fighting back against Rush Limbaugh, but we have to concede that the overall tenor of talk radio is right wing. 

There are a couple of answers to this. One is that freedom is freedom, and if the American people prefer to listen to right wing talk radio, that is their choice. The second answer is twofold: There are plenty of people in this country who deplore what goes on in the talk radio world, and they have their own rights. One is to figure out what companies sponsor these programs and protest to them. That is the approach that has been so effective in responding to Rush Limbaugh (photo right). Put it this way: You don't hear him on KFI anymore. 

The other answer is that there is now an alternative, which is the internet and its many manifestations. A lot of people get their news from the internet and read blogs of their own choosing, one of which is CityWatch LA. In short, the bar has been lowered when it comes to the ability to communicate with a wide public. Some of you even read my thoughts. In truth, the movement to "Flush Rush" came out of the internet, and continues on the internet, so there is an interaction. 


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This brings us to the final topic, which is a grassroots movement for freedom of speech at our neighborhood councils. As some of you may recall, the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners recently passed a set of rules that collectively form a code of conduct, or perhaps you might call it a code of civility. The Commission backed off a bit in its requirements, merely calling on neighborhood council board members to sign a form that they have received the code. 

What's interesting is that numbers of neighborhood council board members are saying no. One member from my own council told me that she would refrain from signing. At a Board of Neighborhood Commissioners meeting the other night, there was a serious side discussion about how groups in the valley are opposed to signing the form, and may refrain. 

Just like the 1968 Olympic demonstration, my view is that it's long overdue. The fact that the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners wants to be able to remove board members from office for refusing to sign the form takes things a giant step forward. Perhaps it's time for neighborhood council participants, board members and stakeholders alike, to pick up the demand for freedom of speech, and call the bluff.


(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net







Vol 12 Issue 98

Pub: Dec 5, 2014