Striking out with free speech

The baseball diamond became the latest forum for free-speech issues.

Andrew Johnson

Baseball season is finally here. Fans were hardly removed from opening day before what is perhaps the next-most-grueling and seemingly never-ending American tradition: handling a public relations controversy. That “hit” also brought issues of freedom of speech up to bat. Last week, just a day into the season, newly hired Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen made comments of support and admiration for Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in an interview, which upset many within the city’s Cuban-American community. Before this point, the team’s biggest concern was whether player Hanley Ramirez would switch from his usual shortstop position to third base. Now, Marlins management is trying to pitch its way out of a jam without clearing the bases of a major part of their fanbase.

Known as somewhat of an entertainer due to his outlandish remarks while managing of the Chicago White Sox, Guillen just didn’t know how to play to his audience this time around. Generally, praising Castro is a pretty dimwitted, if not odd, thing to do, but in Miami, it reverberates very differently than it would anywhere else in the country, or the world for that matter. Considering Miami’s large Cuban communities, Guillen’s comments were foolish and even more insensitive. Offended and angered, members of the Cuban-American community went on to protest outside of the Marlins’ brand-new stadium, which, by the way, is in the heart of Little Havana.

For decades, political refugees fleeing Castro’s oppressive regime have made Miami, along with other parts of Florida, their home, looking to enjoy the freedoms unavailable to them in Cuba. The 90-plus-mile journey from Cuba’s shores to Florida’s are a marine graveyard, claiming the lives of tens of thousands of men, women and children who risked everything they had to escape. Guillen, by taking this matter lightly, ignored their plight. As one Cuban-born, Spanish-language baseball announcer said, this would be analogous to walking into a Jewish neighborhood in New York and commending Hitler’s effective leadership. To localize it, imagine if Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, given Minnesota’s Norwegian heritage, applauded Vidkun Quisling’s prudence. OK, maybe not quite like that last one, but you get the point.

Guillen eventually flew back to Miami from the team’s road trip and apologized profusely and seemingly sincerely in his press conference; the Marlins ended up suspending him for five games as punishment. Soon after though, cynics pointed out what they thought was the hypocrisy that a community who fled a nation where freedom of speech is disallowed was now demonstrating and trying to silence Guillen’s ill-received comments. This is a misguided understanding of what free speech is.

Like economic freedom, the freedom of speech gives citizens the ability to rise and fall based on how they choose to exercise that particular freedom. Rather than financial capital, think of speech as social capital in which every time you say something, an investment is made into your popular standing, where you profit off the gains and undergo the consequences of an erroneous decision. If what you say is well-received and seen to have value in whatever circle you’re in, you may be rewarded, but if it’s the opposite, then it may cost you. That’s why Guillen came under fire from Cuban-Americans and was suspended. Or why sponsors pulled out following remarks Rush Limbaugh made on his radio show. Or why “National Review” let writer John Derbyshire go after a racially insensitive piece on another site. Or why Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen withdrew her Sunday morning talk show appearance after comments seen as attacking stay-at-home moms. Or why Bill Maher’s ABC show was canceled after controversial comments about 9/11. Much like how people prioritize what they feel is in the best interest to communicate, employers and the public have their own interests to look after.

No one is telling them they can’t say whatever they want; in fact, they can say it again and again if they’d like, but it won’t be as representatives or affiliates of their organization. To paraphrase “Closing Time,” you don’t have to go home, but you can’t say it here. Free speech is a two-way street, in that while the first person can express whatever sentiments he or she would like, anyone else can react to it however they would like — it’s up to both of them. That’s why comparing the outcry to Guillen to the repression of free speech in Cuba is wildly faulty; under Castro, there was only one authorized way of self-expression. Last month, before and during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the island, the Cuban government detained hundreds of democratic dissidents, disconnecting their phones; some demonstrators were beaten by state agents and even disappeared. In places like this, there is no equal opportunity for citizens to go back and forth, no personal sovereignty to make up your mind in whatever way you want and not even a chance to make an apology if you wanted to. It’s all decided for you by someone else. Guillen had, and continues to have, all of those options available, and how he chooses to apply those freedoms has been up to him. Initially, it was to his detriment but now hopefully to his benefit.

This episode may soon be as long gone as a home run into deep centerfield. While it may have caused a bit of a media storm, the incident taught us that free speech can never really be rained out as long as everyone has equal chance to participate. After all, you can’t play a game without two teams. Guillen’s mouth did exactly what it has the freedom to do: whatever it wants. And I’ll bet that he of all people will continue to appreciate that. And when it’s our turn to step up to the plate, we do too.

 

Andrew Johnson welcomes comments at [email protected]