The Burdens of Free Speech

Sportswriters and commentators like to say that sports are a microcosm of life and that they teach us some of the essential lessons of life. Such statements are usually self-serving. However, I do believe that the current hootdoodle created by Rashard Mendenhall’s tweets on the subject of Osama bin Laden’s death might be instructive about one of the foundation pieces of American society.

Let me do a quick reset here in case anyone has not heard about “The Mendenhall Tweets”. After President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed in an exchange of fire with US military forces, much of the country erupted with shows of patriotism and flag-waving. Rashard Mendenhall took to Twitter to say:

““What kind of person celebrates death? It’s amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We’ve only heard one side.”

Subsequently, with regard to Osama bin Laden’s involvement with the incidents of 9/11/2001 and the destruction of the NY Trade Center, Mendenhall expanded on his thinking by posting on Twitter the following:

“We’ll never know what really happened. I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition style.’’

These expressions can serve as an example of what it means to value freedom of speech in the US and what burdens said freedom of speech bring to bear on speakers.

Before I go off on a rant of my own here, let me state again that I am not an attorney nor have I spent a day of my life in law school. My opinions are not steeped in any scholarly consideration of the law; my opinions are simply those of an educated person who has accompanied the earth on 67 journeys around the sun.

There is no “First Amendment” issue here. The First Amendment only prohibits the Congress – - and other legislative bodies – - from enacting laws that would inhibit free speech. Even though I hold the Congress of the United States in as low a regard as I can, I have not been able to determine even a single Congressthing who has suggested that Rashard Mendenhall’s tweets should be banned or should subject him to punishment by law. Therefore, please ignore any discussion of the First Amendment and as it might relate to what Mendenhall said or meant; it truly would be irrelevant.

Outside of the legal context, however, the existence and the defense of the First Amendment place some burdens on Rashard Mendenhall when he chooses to speak out – - or in this case “tweet out”. He can tweet whatever he wants to tweet; in fact, the more offensive and outrageous the content of his tweets, the more important it is for people who appreciate “freedom of speech” to defend his right to tweet as he wants. The burdens borne by Rashard Mendenhall are societal and not legal.

He has the right to say what he did. I have an equal right to say he is uninformed, out to lunch, off the reservation and downright whacko. When he exercises his “right to tweet”, he is encumbered by the reactions that will come to him as a result of his tweets. I am sure he does not give a fig about my opinions; he might care a whole lot more if certain other people decide to take personal actions – - not legal actions – - that could be inimical to his interests because of his tweets. For example:

    He is an employee of the Pittsburgh Steelers – - owned by the Rooney family. The eldest living Rooney is a member of the US Diplomatic Corps at the moment serving as US Ambassador to Ireland. If he or his scions decide that they no longer want Rashard Mendenhall in their employ based on his tweets, they can exercise their Freedom of Association and decide not to associate with him. He has a right to free speech; he does not have a right to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers – - or any other NFL team.

    He is an athlete whose agent(s) are always on the lookout for advantageous endorsement deals. If the decision makers at various corporations decide that they do not want their companies aligned with someone who would tweet such twaddle, they can take their endorsement searches in different directions.

    He is a public figure. His tweets attract far more attention than any of my tweets would – - if I ever decided to tweet. Because his tweets attract more attention, he bears the burden of being called a meathead by LOTS of folks for any of his expressed views that might be a bit outré.

I have no idea if the Pittsburgh Steelers will seek to have him ply his trade elsewhere. The fact that Mendenhall is a recidivist when it comes to stupid tweets – - he also said that Adrian Peterson’s comments on NFL players being modern day slaves was on target and expounded to say that the business practices of the NFL and the slave trade 200 years ago were directly comparable – - might factor into a Steelers’ decision to find a new running back.

I will be shocked beyond belief if his agent can land him a new endorsement deal with any business entity in the near future. I never studied marketing either, but it just seems logical to me that most businesses do not want to associate themselves with people who call legitimate business entities part of a modern day slave trade or people who think that Osama bin Laden never got to “state his side of the case” with regard to the happenings on 9/11/2001.

    [Aside: Does Rashard Mendenhall know that Osama bin Laden issued a fatwa in his name about 20 years ago that advocated and sanctioned the killing of Jews and Americans? If so, might that not be an opportunity that he took to “state his side of the case”?]

With regard to public scorn, Mendenhall will be a catcher and not a pitcher for a long time to come. To be sure, there are folks out there whose firm beliefs will make Rashard Mendenhall’s seem to be “measured” and “worthy of discussion”. Make no mistake; there are conspiracy theorists who are going to take this incident in directions that have not been charted so far. After all, Osama bin Laden’s body was buried at sea so there will never be any corpus dilicti.

Someone will surely point out that since there is no body, there is no way to prove that the person of Osama bin Laden is dead since no one had been able to produce his body for the last ten years. What is different now – - other than the “convenient story” that he was killed and buried at sea? We lived through the “birthers”; be prepared for the rise of the “deathers”.

I am sure that someone somewhere will “conclude” that bin Laden’s death really happened a year or so ago and that his body has been “kept on ice” for a while until this propitious moment politically for the Administration to declare that he was killed in a daring raid in a foreign country. Maybe they “kept him on ice” in the same place that they have kept the bodies of the aliens that landed at Roswell, NM in the 1940s…?

I mention all this because the fact that other people will certainly come up with even more outrageous positions that did Rashard Mendenhall, that does not excuse his ignorance. In fact, just because his tweets will be filed mentally alongside the commentaries of folks who dined at the “All You Can Eat Stupidity Buffet”, that makes his commentary and world view even more repugnant. Moreover, because it is repugnant, we must protect vigorously his freedom to express his repugnant ignorance.

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports…

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Comments

  • Chris  On May 5, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    Good observations all the way through. Rather than comment on the hot button topic at hand, I’ll just say that this line -

    “When he exercises his “right to tweet”, he is encumbered by the reactions that will come to him as a result of his tweets.”

    - happens to sum up the disposable nature of twitter noise quite well. Everyone’s a pundit, just not a vetted or informed one…

  • The Sports Curmudgeon  On May 5, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    Chris:

    Thank you for your kind words.

    Please see tomorrow’s rant (5/6/11) for the first consequence of Rashard Mendenhall’s tweets to come to him… Perhaps it will be the only consequence; perhaps not.

  • Patrick Mottonen  On May 6, 2011 at 9:40 am

    Don’t forget Jimmy Hoffa.

    I think Kris said it well.

    ‘Lord help me to shoulder the burden of freedom”

    Another quote if I can be so bold.

    “It’s getting more and more absurd”

    A craven curmudgeon.

  • The Sports Curmudgeon  On May 8, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    Patrick:

    Welcome. If you are indeed a “craven curmudgeon” you will find some companionship here…

  • Patrick Mottonen  On May 9, 2011 at 6:07 am

    Oh, BTW I am a cultural anthropologist and I live in South America. I have given up ranting because it puts people off. I hope you keep up the good work.

  • Patrick Mottonen  On May 9, 2011 at 9:55 am

    https://www.msu.edu/~jdowell/miner.html?pagewanted=all

    maybe this is only funny to anthropoligists.

  • The Sports Curmudgeon  On May 9, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Patrick:

    No, that is funny on lots of levels. The description of the daily “mouth-rite” and the semi-annual seeking out of a “holy-mouth-man” was particularly good.

    Always remember the brand of bottled water, Evian, when spelled backwards give you Naive.

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