Hey, baseball brass: Big Brother and freedom of speech may be involved here

December 03, 1992|By Jerome Holtzman | Jerome Holtzman,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- The Marge Schott controversy, which has grown into a media circus, presents an interesting legal question of freedom of speech. She is the owner of the Cincinnati Reds and has been accused of making oral slurs against blacks and Jews, the usual targets.

Home run king Hank Aaron, a vice president of the Atlanta Braves, insists Schott should be forced to sell her team and should be thrown out of baseball. Others, outraged but less militant, contend a one- or two-year suspension would be sufficient punishment.

Nobody knows how it will play out, but there is no doubt she will be reprimanded by her fellow owners, possibly next week in Louisville at the winter meetings, after the report of a subcommittee investigating the charges.

"We are going to fight the good fight," declared Steve Greenberg, baseball's deputy commissioner.

That's good to hear because I, too, have been fighting the good fight, beginning with two years in the Marine Corps during the big war: gung-ho for the pursuit of liberty and the freedom of speech, including offensive speech.

As I see it, Schott already is the big loser, not the African-Americans or the Jews. Despite her denials, her reputation is damaged beyond repair. If guilty as charged, she would be among the millions of similarly unenlightened people who have made unfair remarks about minorities, in private and without consequence.

For example, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the black leader, insulted 2 million or 3 million Jews when he described them as "Hymies" and New York as "Hymietown." Jackson used this derogatory term in a personal aside. He apologized after his words were made public.

This was during the 1984 presidential campaign. The Rev. Jackson wasn't forced to drop out of the race. And he received millions of votes in presidential primaries.

A month or so ago, Jackson petitioned the commissioner's office requesting he be allowed to speak at the winter meetings. If he speaks, surely he will accuse the owners and their administrators of bigotry. His privilege, of course.

But, according to Greenberg, there is a difference. Baseball has no control over Jackson. Only those employed in the national pastime can be punished for what they say.

So the people working for ballclubs have forfeited their First Amendment rights?

"That is correct," Greenberg said. He also explained freedom of speech does not include "shouting fire in a crowded theater" or "fighting words" that, in essence, are slurs against race or religion.

I agree. Everyone, regardless of origin or religious preference, should be treated with respect.

I called Jay Miller, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and asked about the incident several years ago when a goon squad of self-proclaimed Nazis marched through downtown Skokie, Ill., the home for many survivors of the Holocaust. The event was described accurately as "psychological rape."

The ACLU defended the marchers but has been silent on the Schott affair. I asked if the ACLU also was planning to come to Schott's aid.

The ACLU supported the Nazi march, Miller said, because federal laws were endangered. "Mrs. Schott doesn't fall under our purview, because it's not a government action," Miller said.

Still, the attempt to discipline someone for speech, not conduct, would seem to be a significant danger. Schott didn't demonstrate and throw eggs or rocks at the police. She did not inflict bodily harm. Nor is she guilty of theft or general dishonesty.

If true, her alleged crime is stupidity. If she is guilty, so is just about everyone else, blacks and Jews included. Who among us have not voiced prejudices?

Comparisons have been made between Schott and Al Campanis, the former general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Campanis was an employee, not an owner. He was then 70, in his 44th season with the Dodgers.

Asked on national television why there were not more black managers and general managers, Campanis said they "lacked the necessities."

Two days later, Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley fired Campanis. Cheers for O'Malley. But what only a few people knew is O'Malley, for several years, had been trying to dump Campanis and was now able to do so without threat of age discrimination.

I have known Campanis for more than 30 years. He is not a bigot. However wrong, this was his sincere conviction. Happily, it has been proven erroneous. But there is also this to consider: Would someone prejudiced against blacks hang a huge painting of Jackie Robinson in his living room, as Campanis did?

I asked Greenberg the last time an owner was fined for something he said. Greenberg said it may have been in 1983, when then-White Sox president Eddie Einhorn said, "You know how you can tell when George Steinbrenner is lying? When his lips move."

Steinbrenner responded by calling Einhorn and White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf "The Katzenjammer Kids."

Bowie Kuhn, then the commissioner, fined all three parties $5,000. So much for history.

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