Bridge Protestors Face Sanction for Anti-Bush Sign
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.”
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.