Bridge Protestors Face Sanction for Anti-Bush Sign

A championship womens’ bridge team went Dixie Chick and are now facing possible sanctions.

In the genteel world of bridge, disputes are usually handled quietly and rarely involve issues of national policy. But in a fight reminiscent of the brouhaha over an anti-Bush statement by Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks in 2003, a team of women who represented the United States at the world bridge championships in Shanghai last month is facing sanctions, including a yearlong ban from competition, for a spur-of-the-moment protest.

At issue is a crudely lettered sign, scribbled on the back of a menu, that was held up at an awards dinner and read, “We did not vote for Bush.”

Bridge We Did Not Vote For Bush Protest Sign

By e-mail, angry bridge players have accused the women of “treason” and “sedition.”

“This isn’t a free-speech issue,” said Jan Martel, president of the United States Bridge Federation, the nonprofit group that selects teams for international tournaments. “There isn’t any question that private organizations can control the speech of people who represent them.”

Not so, said Danny Kleinman, a professional bridge player, teacher and columnist. “If the U.S.B.F. wants to impose conditions of membership that involve curtailment of free speech, then it cannot claim to represent our country in international competition,” he said by e-mail.

Ms. Martel said the action by the team, which had won the Venice Cup, the women’s title, at the Shanghai event, could cost the federation corporate sponsors.

The players have been stunned by the reaction to what they saw as a spontaneous gesture, “a moment of levity,” said Gail Greenberg, the team’s nonplaying captain and winner of 11 world championships. “What we were trying to say, not to Americans but to our friends from other countries, was that we understand that they are questioning and critical of what our country is doing these days, and we want you to know that we, too, are critical,” Ms. Greenberg said, stressing that she was speaking for herself and not her six teammates.

In all honesty, I was unaware there was an international bridge championship, so this at least provides the group with some publicity.

As to the possible sanctions, I’m rather torn. On its face, the protest was innocuous enough and Americans should not face threats to their livelihood over their political views. Then again, highjacking an event like this for personal political expression is unseemly and may well violate the rules of the association. (So far as I can tell from a quick check, though, the Women’s Conditions of Contest only discuss the point system for playing; there are no personal conduct rules aside from penalties for tardiness.)

Via Mark Kleiman, who sees this as cut-and-dried: “If you exercise your right to free speech, you’re unfit to represent the United States in international competition. Why is that so hard to understand?”

UPDATE: Jon Swift playfully adds,

Some people have the wrong idea about what the Bill of Rights really means. In America you have freedom of expression as long as a private organization doesn’t own your expression. Peaceful protests are fine as long as they don’t embarrass organizations that depend on corporate sponsorship and take place on American soil behind police barricades where they can be videotaped for future use in any trials that might arise.

Of course, the First Amendment only prohibits Congress (and via incorporation via the 14th Amendment, the several States) from abridging speech. In the same way that “freedom of the press is reserved to those who own one,” people face practical limitations on what they can say and when they can say it because of economic relationships.

The Dixie Chicks are free to bash President Bush but country radio stations are free to stop playing their records and country music fans are free to stop buying their albums and paying to attend their concerts. Isaiah Washington and Michael Richards are free to say what they want about gays and African Americans but they’re not immune from the economic consequences that follow.

In many ways, that’s lamentable. Unpopular and controversial ideas deserve the highest level of protection and tyranny of the majority or the tyranny of the almighty dollar is, in many ways, no better than tyranny of the king. Only the latter is prohibited, though.

For one thing, the state has a unique power over its citizens. For another, one can’t limit the sanctioning power of the community or its business owners without stripping them of their right of free association.

Also, I neglected to mention in the original post the outrageousness of dubbing innocuous statements about the sitting president “treason.” Frankly, that sort of thing is now so commonplace that I’m inured to it unless it comes from particularly noteworthy sources.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Blogosphere, Congress, LGBTQ Issues, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. David Nick says:

    James? Perhaps this should have been a photo caption contest instead.

    I would have entered the contest with the following:

    “We may not have voted for Bush, but you can’t deny that most of us are shooting for uni-brows”

  2. To claim this is a free speech issue is to have no real comprehension of what free speech is in the context of the United States Constitution.

  3. James Joyner says:

    To claim this is a free speech issue is to have no real comprehension of what free speech is in the context of the United States Constitution.

    It’s a free speech issue; it’s just not a First Amendment issue.

    There’s a long running argument about tyranny of the majority and the chilling effect on free speech imposed by a mob. The irony here is that they’re now expressing a majority sentiment and being chilled by an angry minority.

    Regardless, there’s no question in my mind that a private association has the right to sanction this sort of speech. They reasonably want to avoid alienating sponsors and taking the spotlight off the competitive aspect of their competition.

  4. just me says:

    I actually place this under “dumb things people do without thinking of the consequences.”

    Congress isn’t making the rules here, the Bridge association is, and they can restrict what type of speech they want expressed at sanctioned events. I don’t think politics really belongs in sporting/games events-at least not from the participants-much for this reason. I wouldn’t want to see a “we love Bush” sign anymore than a “we didn’t vote for him” one.

    But in general I think it is much ado about nothing. The sign was rather inocuous, and arguments about treason and the like are just plain idiotic.

  5. Grewgills says:

    They were charged with conduct unbecoming a member. There are no posted rules about speech on their website though some may be tucked away elsewhere. An after the fact pronouncement with no clear written rule seems unfair at the least and should be open to appeal and given that the ruling could cost them substantial money possible legal action. Which I guess explains point #5 of their punishment.

    5. The team has to write a document specifying all details of the incident.
    (Who had the idea, who made the sign, …). This document can be used as evidence in a court of law.

    Rather comically the USFB is sending letters of regret to the Chinese Contract Bridge Association and World Bridge Federation as though they were offended.

    They say they are afraid that the Chinese government, Microsoft, and an Italian insurance company (the latter 2 provided money) would be offended by the message. That seems to be either intentionally or unintentionally far off base.

    They were also concerned by the many e-mails they received that labeled the team holding up this sign as sedition and treason. That people would label this incident sedition or treason is more than ridiculous. That this would prompt action is even more ridiculous.

  6. Think about it USBF – are you really punishing conduct unbecoming a member, or conduct you deem unbecoming an American? If the latter, you may have a point but is it really the Federation’s role to enforce patriotism?

    excerpt from As Good As News

  7. Steve Plunk says:

    There’s a time and place for everything and mature adults know when it is proper to make such statements. Adolescent behavior can certainly be characterized as unbecoming.

    The President was elected by the entire country so they are not expressing the view of the majority. Polls relating to job performance are just polls they are not elections.

    The so called tyranny of the dollar and tyranny of the majority are not tyranny at all. How can we call choosing to not spend money on someone’s product tyranny? It is exercise of choice by an individual which is the furthest thing from tyranny. Tyranny of the majority would entail crushing the rights of the minority. This is not at all what has happened. These ladies could speak their minds at the proper time and place. Asking for behavior standards at official events is not tyranny.

    Is this treasonous? No. Is it sedition? No. Is it petulant? Yes.

  8. Anon says:

    It’s a sad statement that we even need to comment about whether or not this is treason.

    That said, I do think that trying to manage what recipients do during an award ceremony is reasonable. But, since this seems to be a first infraction, and the rules don’t seem to be clearly stated, I think a formal warning would be more appropriate.

  9. Dadmanly says:

    Why is it that any time a non-liberal exercises their free speech rights, and utters non-PC speech, all manner of consequence can be brought down upon their head?

    But if a liberal exercises their free speech, and are merely offensive, but PC, then they should be shielded from all manner of predictable economic or other consequence for their foolishness?

    The Bill of Rights says the government cannot restrict or restrain your free speech. It doesn’t say anything about what can or can’t be done by your Boss, your co-workers, your neighbors, your family, or the members or officers of any associations to which you belong.

    Dumb and rude is dumb and rude.

    Boo hoo, they had to listen to questions about Bush or our foreign policy. No doubt other Americans were just as uncomfortable explaining what Clinton was doing with interns behind closed doors.

    God forbid Americans of any political stripe make the effort to explain to citizens of a non-democratic country, that democracy means sometimes you vote against but get an elected official you don’t agree with, or whose actions you deplore. (And who then doesn’t throw you in jail and harvest your organs while you die from the harvesting.)

  10. Wayne says:

    I am waiting for Tom Brady to hold up a sign during half time saying Hillary is a C*#t.

    Anyone has a right to say most anything they want on their own time but when they are representing an organization they do not. The ladies were out of order and should be punish.

  11. Grewgills says:

    I am waiting for Tom Brady to hold up a sign during half time saying Hillary is a C*#t.

    Yes that is exactly the same. You have once again given us a thoughtful and cogent response.

  12. anjin-san says:

    I am waiting for Tom Brady to hold up a sign during half time saying Hillary is a C*#

    Funny, I am waiting for Brady to hold up a sign saying the same thing about Bush…

  13. Wayne says:

    “Funny, I am waiting for Brady to hold up a sign saying the same thing about Bush…”

    Either way it would be inappropriate for Brady to do that and he would get punish rightly so by the NFL for doing so.

  14. Antonius says:

    Isn’t the sign a simple statement of a fact much like, “We’re wearing shoes.” ?

  15. Gollum says:

    Admittedly out of line at an awards ceremony, but, I mean look at them – – if you take in the whole scene, it’s actually kind of a pro-Bush statement they’re making.

  16. jim says:

    Just why is it so important for some Americans to suck up to others?

  17. vnjagvet says:

    The attorney for the Federation said that each participant signs a pledge similar to the one Olympians sign. After the contains a “no political statements” provision. The reason: Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the Mexico City Olympics.

    It seems to me that the pledge is not really ambiguous, and this clearly breaches it.

  18. Evan says:

    I can’t explain exactly what gets me so fired up but this is infuriating. This shit has got to stop. If their argument is that their sponsors will pull support, then there is a response to that. Who are your sponsors? Lets have a talk with them about boycotts of their products.

    We may not have been able to take down the country music radio stations and recording industry in 2003 but we sure as hell could get a message through to the United States Bridge Federation in 2007/2008.

    I wrote the “Board” an email, attached below. Their email address is