In the 21st Century, What Does Freedom of Speech Mean?

The women below are exercising their constitutional right to Freedom of Speech — or are they?

These ladies — who won an international Bridge competition last month — put together their sign in response to questions they got from other teams in the tournament. Members of teams from other countries were questioning how the American government could justify its policies — the ladies just wanted everyone to know that they disagreed too.Well, the United States Bridge Federation disagrees and is now trying to punish them severely — including cutting off their ability to make a living as Professional Bridge players.

“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.

It’s been a long time since the founders of America put together the US Constitution and our Bill of Rights.

At the head of the Bill of Rights, they chose to put Freedom of Speech as the very first guaranteed right of all citizens. They had lived in a time when speaking out against the King of England was literally a crime punishable by death, so it’s no wonder they felt so strongly about it.

So now, in the 21st Century, have things changed?

With America at war in Iraq and Afghanistan — should people still be allowed to speak out freely? And at what point does criticism of the Government or of the President cross the line? Is there — or should there be — any line that can be crossed to make Freedom of Speech no longer a guaranteed right?

What do you think — should the United States Bridge Federation be able to punish them financially for their actions? And if so, what exactly does Freedom of Speech mean?

11 thoughts on “In the 21st Century, What Does Freedom of Speech Mean?

  1. I am always amazed at how often “Freedom of Speech” is misunderstood by Americans. The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution contains the phrase… “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” Clearly, the first amendment is not violated by the United States Bridge Federation’s decision to revoke memberships of individuals they don’t want as members. Those ex-members still have the unabridged right to say anything they like, and the U.S. Congress can’t pass a law that hinders them in any way.

    There is no provision in the U.S. Constitution that guarantees U.S. citizens the right to belong to the U.S. Bridge Federation, or the Book of The Month Club, or any other organization.

    It is not a free speech issue, and has nothing to do with the Constitution, or more specifically The Bill of Rights.

  2. @PW Fenton. I don’t believe this issue is quite as clear as you make it out to be.

    If these people are banned directly as a result of their speech — and for no other reason — then they are being directly punished for that speech. The US Bridge Association certainly has a responsibility to respect the constitution.

    The US Supreme court, for example, made a similar decision with respect to students in schools — the schools cannot kick students out simply for exercising their speech rights. That is, because they are students in a school setting does not mean they lose their rights.

    Moreover, the act of banning them from competition has a profound effect on other players. By sending the message that they will ban anyone who speaks out in a way that that they don’t like, the USBA is taking away the rights of all other members. It becomes clear after this action that NO member of the USBA has the right to freedom of speech at any event.

    As I said, I don’t believe the argument is as simplistic as you describe.

  3. The Bridge Association has done nothing that doesn’t respect the Constitution. This should not suggest that I condone their action. However, they have the “right” to do it. The Constitution says that THE GOVERNMENT can’t prohibit speech. The Bridge Association is not the government.

    It is a PRIVATE organization. It is not funded by the government as a school is. It is the Government who is forbidden from infringing on the right to free speech.

    Imagine you are having a party at your home. I attend your party and I proclaim to all your guests that I advocate various beliefs that you find very distasteful. Do you believe that you must allow me to stay and continue doing this at your party?

    I hope not (or I ain’t coming to your party :-) ). The fact is, you can have anyone removed from your property, for any reason at all.

    So can the Bridge Federation. Fox News can refuse to allow me to talk on their station. The New York Times can refuse to allow me to put my article in their newspaper. Hooters can refuse to allow me to give a speech in their restaurant.

    And any non-government organization can deny me membership because they don’t like what I say.

    It actually is that simple.

    Now if it should turn out that the Bridge Federation is funded by the U.S. Government there may be some basis for a Constitutional argument. But it’s only the GOVERNMENT that is prohibited from infringing on your speech.

  4. Regardless of whether this clearly violates the constitution (am I not qualified on that point), I would say that this moved by the Bridge Federation is misguided and will probably be harmful to their organization. Acceptance speeches are notorious for critiques of the government, policies, etc (just look at the Oscars). To harshly penalize this group of women is just plain wrong, if I was a member of the Bridge Federation I would cancel my membership in protest!

  5. Pingback: Censorship Gone Wild: United States Bridge Federation Edition « The Burger.

  6. Good points made all around. This is not an issue of free speech at all. Those who believe it is when the principle of universality is applied to their logic, meaning if everyone was to do this would it make sense. For example, if every member of Greenpeace was to espouse killing whales would Greenpeace be in their rights to revoke their membership? Of course they would

    This is an issue of decorum, abuse of a unique situation. The women must have been confronted individually about the position of the US government in Iraq, and therefore their response should have been in kind. Instead they chose to use a forum which was one to many and implied the organization as well. There actions were sophomoric and self-centered.

    Let me give an example where such a public display is warranted to advance a cause and not merely a gesture of frustration to express a political view.

    The 1968 Olympics and the case of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won medals in a track event representing the United States is a better example of using a forum in protest Their fists held high in a sign of black solidarity with the civil rights movement. They and many of their people were oppressed in this country. Their action in Mexico was a sign to the world and this country that more progress needed to be made.

    The ladies of the bridge club were just upset they were asked so many questions. And for the record I opposed the war in Iraq prior to Bush’s decision.

  7. I agree that this issue does not involve the guarantee of free speech under our constitution, but the action and comments of the Federation and the sanctions they are reported to be imposing is absolutely stupid, personally offensive and at the least a huge over-reaction. How do they feel about players wearing clearly political buttons, T-shirts or caps? And who, pray tell, was offended?

  8. What ever happened to free speech? It’s gone. If the powers that be at the Federation had ever been booed for being an American, they would do more than hold up a sign.

    Our athletes in foreign country’s are booed. In the last olympics they were booed because of this radical, criminal administration.

    Freedom of expression or dissent has practically disappeared like our very constitution. Heil Federation!! These idiots that make these rules must be Republicans.

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