On Tim Robbins, the Hall of Fame, and First Amendment


While they certainly use the word a lot, liberals just don't seem to really understand the meaning of 'freedom.'

Take, for example, Tim Robbins. The Baseball Hall of Fame recently cancelled a planned 15th anniversary celebration of the film 'Bull Durham' in which both Robbins and his paramour Susan Sarandon appeared. The Hall president, in explaining this cancellation, sent them a letter saying that, while they have a right to their opinion, the stance of the Hall was that their criticism of the President 'could put our troops in even more danger' and that 'as an institution, we stand behind the President and our troops in this conflict.'

This is as it should be: both parties must have freedom to express their opinions. It is American tradition, one of the founding beliefs, that everyone has a right to free speech. Unfortunately, Robbins' written response to the Hall contains a sentence that betrays the fact that Robbins, a longtime outspoken liberal, apparently misunderstands the right to freedom of speech. While he believes strongly in his own right, it seems he would deny it to those who disagree with him.

In his letter, Robbins, after claiming that the Hall president 'belongs with the cowards and ideologues in a hall of infamy and shame,' says that:

You invoke patriotism and use words like 'freedom' in an attempt to intimidate and bully. In doing so, you dishonor the words 'patriotism' and 'freedom' and dishonor the men and women who have fought wars to keep this nation a place where one can freely express their opinions without fear of reprisal or punishment.

But in what way is canceling this event 'an attempt to intimidate and bully'? Where is the threat that such words imply? It reminds me of what the late Senator Sam Ervin once said: if the law is on your side, pound the law; if it's not, pound the table. To use words and name-calling such as this is mere table-pounding. The Hall is in no sense telling Robbins what to say or think. The Hall is in no way threatening him with harm. It is merely canceling an event glorifying a particular filmed example of his extremely well-compensated and widely praised ability to pretend and to play-act. The Hall's decision merely demonstrates that there are consequences to one's actions. And these consequences result precisely because other people have exactly the same right Robbins does to express himself.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, from which our tradition of free speech derives, says that 'Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.' In other words, the federal government is prohibited from making any kind of speech illegal and thus the subject of fines, punishments, or other penalties. It has never meant ' and, indeed, it can not mean ' that anyone is free to say anything he wants 'without fear of reprisal or punishment' because any such reprisal or punishment stems directly and necessarily from the right of the other to his freedom of speech.

Take, first, a somewhat farcical example. Apparently Winston Churchill was not a big hit with the woman next to him at a dinner party. At one point she turned to Churchill and said, 'Sir, if you were my husband, I'd poison your drink,' to which Churchill replied, 'Madame, if I were your husband, I'd drink it.'

The others at the table had to have laughed at that. She must have been publicly embarrassed. Was Churchill's snappy comeback not in some way a reprisal, a punishment? You could even make the case that Churchill intended his comment to in some sense intimidate and bully the woman. But according to the Robbins Doctrine, the woman had a right to express her opinion 'without fear of reprisal or punishment.'

What if a business advertises on a television program I find disgusting? Am I not free then to stop buying their products as a result? Not according to the Robbins Doctrine: that advertiser has a right to free speech, and thus to advertise on whatever program it wants, 'without fear of reprisal or punishment.' What if my tax preparer for some reason signifies sympathy for Nazi ideology? Do I not have the right to withdraw my business and refuse all future dealings with him? Again, not according to Robbins. According to him, in severing my ties with this Nazi I 'dishonor the words 'patriotism' and 'freedom' and dishonor the men and women who have fought wars to keep this nation a place where one can freely express their opinions without fear of reprisal or punishment.'

The right to 'free speech' refers only to the actions of the federal government. What the government thinks is correct or incorrect, acceptable or unacceptable, speech must not be enforced upon all the people because each individual must remain free to make his own decision. But restricting the actions and reactions of individuals to speech would only result in the diminution of freedom. If someone's speech offends me, I must be free to disassociate myself from him.

In the case of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Robbins' anti-war stance offends the Hall's president, and as a result he has cancelled this 'Bull Durham' celebration. Just as Robbins has a right to his opinion, the Hall has a right to its opinion. The two are intertwined. Unfortunately, Robbins doesn't see it that way because, like many liberals, he doesn't really seem to understand that freedom applies to everyone, not just to him, or to people and ideas with which he agrees.

After all, I don't agree with the Hall's position. I think it's wrong of them to cancel this event for the reasons it's expressed, and that they have done so for this reason angers me. But that does not mean they don't have a right to do it. And it certainly doesn't mean that they 'dishonor the words 'patriotism' and 'freedom' and dishonor the men and women who have fought wars to keep this nation a place where one can freely express their opinions without fear of reprisal or punishment.' It means only that we disagree.

It also means that, as a lifetime Yankee fan and native upstate New Yorker, I will refuse to visit the Hall of Fame ever again as a result of their pro-war, pro-imperial, pro-mass murder stance and I will encourage everyone I can to do the same.

After all, actions have consequences, and that's part of what freedom is all about.

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Craig Russell's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.