Free Speech Isn't Always Free

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My mother often says, "Free speech isn't always free." One doesn't have to look very far for real-world examples of people being made to pay for uttering, tweeting or writing words that don't sit well with various communities.


The National Review fired two writers within a week for making racially inflammatory comments. The conservative publication dropped John Derbyshire and Robert Weissberg — the former for a blog post demonizing blacks, and Weissberg for an incendiary talk espousing the virtues of white nationalism. Derbyshire and Weissberg aren't the only recent casualties of "free speech."

Journalist Roland Martin was suspended by CNN in February for tweets sent during the Super Bowl that GLAAD said were homophobic. Martin denied the charge and said the tweets were misinterpreted, but he was suspended nonetheless. Scores of advertisers dumped Rush Limbaugh's radio show over his derogatory comments about Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke. Limbaugh apologized for his sexist comments after the media firestorm. I could go on, but you get the gist.

Perhaps the most interesting example of the real cost of free speech is Miami Marlins Manager Ozzie Guillen's most recent controversy over positive, admiring comments he made about Fidel Castro on Time magazine's website last week. Guillen, who was suspended for five games by Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig, apologized profusely in Spanish and English, saying that he was thinking in Spanish but used the wrong English to communicate his feelings about Castro.

Many in the Cuban community are calling for Guillen to be fired or for his resignation, while others believe that he has a right to his opinion, even if it does not sit well with Selig, Major League Baseball or the Cuban community.

I find it preposterous that Selig — who sat with Castro during a Baltimore Orioles exhibition game against Cuba in 1999 and who refused to move the 2011 MLB All-Star Game from Phoenix, despite the controversial anti-immigrant SB 1070 law targeting Latinos in Arizona — has the nerve to feign outrage over Guillen's comments.

According to ESPN, in a statement about the suspension, Selig said, "Guillen's remarks, which were offensive to an important part of the Miami community and others throughout the world, have no place in our game." He also said that baseball as an institution has "important social responsibilities" and he expects those representing the game to show respect and sensitivity to its many cultures.

Funny, when asked about SB 1070, he said that political issues did not belong in baseball. So which is it?

In addition to Selig being a complete hypocrite, Guillen's treatment speaks to the fact that there is a double standard when it comes to who really has the right to speak freely. Who is Selig to point out Guillen's responsibility to the Cuban community when he himself abdicated his responsibility to the Latino community when it suited him?

For a league in which more than 30 percent of players are Latino, Selig's unwillingness to move the game despite calls from Latino-community leaders, activists and MLB players spoke volumes about his lack of regard for issues affecting Latinos throughout the country. Rubbing elbows with Castro in 1999, a man he now claims to loathe, speaks even louder.

While Selig has the freedom to do pretty much whatever he damn well pleases, Guillen, who was born in Venezuela and became an American citizen in 2006, apparently doesn't have the right to have unpopular views on Castro.

This isn't Guillen's first dustup over controversial comments about world leaders — or dictators, depending on your perspective. Guillen was lambasted for expressing his admiration for "the man," Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, in a 2006 interview with Playboy, after having been criticized for waving the Venezuelan flag and shouting "Viva Chávez!" during the Chicago White Sox's celebration of winning the 2005 World Series. Again Guillen insisted that he was talking about the man, not the politician. What is America coming to if someone born in Venezuela can't speak publicly about the president of Venezuela?


Therein lies the rub. If freedom of speech is truly free, then Guillen has the right to have unpopular views about Castro, Chávez or anyone else, for that matter, just as Selig has the right to criticize him for those views.

Baseball is known as America's sport because it was a sport that immigrants from different parts of the world and speaking different languages could embrace. How ironic is it that those whose ancestors came here seeking freedoms — including free speech — now dictate what players and managers of the game can and cannot say, even when those participants are speaking of their own racial, ethnic or national community?

Let me be clear: I think that Guillen is a loudmouth who needs to take it down a thousand decibels. But suspending him for five games for having, and expressing, an opinion on a subject he was asked about is a questionable action — but it proves that my mother is right. 

The idea that one has the right to have one's own views about certain matters and to voice those views without fear of retribution is just that — an idea. The reality is that when given a specific platform (the operative word is "given"), people can't assume that they can use that platform to say whatever they think, even when asked.


Words matter, and how those words are sewn together — and how they're communicated, and by whom — matters even more. The ongoing firings of writers, celebrities and media personalities over the written, spoken or digital word serve as a constant reminder that free speech isn't always free — at least not for everyone.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.