This past Monday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a rock group called “The Slants,” overturning a ruling by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s that found it could not trademark the name because it disparaged Asian-Americans. The fact that the members of “The Slants,” are Asian-American themselves wasn’t relevant according to the ruling that the Supreme Court overturned.
The Court did NOT rule on whether the name is or is not disparaging. It simply found, in an 8-0 decision, that the first amendment protects free speech and the RIGHT to say disparaging things. Naturally, one of the first people to react to the ruling was the owner of Washington’s NFL team, Dan Snyder. In a tweet sent out by the team he wrote, “I’m THRILLED. Hail to the Redskins!”
Let’s not get into Snyder being one of the more obnoxious people on earth. Note that the first amendment gives me the right to call him obnoxious and a lot of other names too, but I’ll settle – for now – for obnoxious.
Snyder’s team has also run afoul of the trademark office in the past because the team name is considered disparaging by many people of many colors. The dictionary defines the word this way: “Disparaging and offensive . . . A contemptuous term used to refer to a North American Indian.”
Snyder, his minions, many of his fans and many in the media claim that tradition protects the name and that for many years no one objected to the team’s name. They’re right – up to a point.
Years ago, African Americans referred to themselves as ‘colored,’; then as ‘negroes,’; and then as ‘black.’ Today, African American performers occasionally use the ‘n-word’ in their lyrics, and, while some might find it offensive, others say THEY have the right to use it. I find it offensive and I’m not African American. To me, the word is a profanity. NO ONE would even consider naming a sports team the N-word or, for that matter, the Coloreds; the Negroes or The Blacks. The New Zealand Rugby team’s name, ‘The All Blacks,’ comes from the color of the uniforms they wore 100-plus years ago.
Snyder wasn’t the only one claiming some kind of ‘victory’ in the court’s ruling, which was unanimous because free speech is not a partisan issue. Free speech is what gives the Klu Klux Klan the right to STILL organize rallies and marches. It is why the ACLU – often a favorite target of the right – has provided legal backing to the KKK when it has sought licenses for rallies.
Free speech is also what allows people to burn the flag in public and allowed Colin Kapernick and others to not stand for the national anthem.
Which is why it was a little bit baffling when long-time Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger weighed in Thursday morning with a column calling the Supreme Court’s ruling, ‘breath-taking.’
Henninger was thrilled with the Supremes’ decision because he sees it as pushback against the left’s insistence that nicknames like, Redskins, Indians, Seminoles and Braves, among others, should go away. Henninger is very concerned that Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has suggested that “Chief Wahoo,” the grinning red-faced Cleveland Indians logo, should probably disappear.
“All the informal silencing elements are in play to extinguish Chief Wahoo, who after nearly 70 years is pretty much the symbolic representation of the entire city of Cleveland,” Henninger wrote. He goes on to throw the usual right wing shots at “Saturday Night Live,” noting that it bills itself as being, ‘From New York,’ that bastion of liberals and also at ESPN, which has become another target of the right the last few years.
It is worth noting that slavery was a tradition; so was segregation and dangerous fraternity hazing. Something being a ‘tradition’ doesn’t make it okay, and it certainly shouldn’t mean it should exist forever.
This is the same Henninger who a week earlier wrote a column saying that a Public Theater Production of a play about a plot to assassinate Donald Trump should be cancelled, going on to rip the producers for not doing so. Hang on here, isn’t the Supreme Court ruling defending free speech equally, ‘breath-taking,’ where the Trump play is concerned?
Free speech is a simple issue and a complicated one. If you are going to embrace it when it protects the things you believe in, then you have to embrace it when it protects things you find repulsive. The KKK has the right to march and Colin Kapernick has the right to sit.
If you are going to cheer – a la Snyder – the court’s ruling on the right of ‘The Slants,’ to their name under the first amendment, then you can NOT scream, “love it or leave it,” at Kapernick or, for that matter, at flag-burners.
Of course, Snyder, an ardent Trump supporter, probably doesn’t see it that way. Nor, apparently, does Henninger, who attacks the left for trying to stomp on the free-speech rights of Snyder and the owners of the Indians but finds a play that attacks Trump reprehensible. For the record: it IS reprehensible, but that’s not the point.
People like to say, “I have the right to….” Fill in the blank. Yes, they do. In some case they’re protected by the constitution and in some cases they’re protected by authority or the mores of society. Private clubs have the legal RIGHT to discriminate against anyone. That’s why Augusta National Golf Club had no female members until 2012. It is also why Burning Tree, the famous club in Bethesda, Maryland not only has no female members but doesn’t allow women on the GROUNDS – except at Christmas, when members’ wives are allowed to shop for their husbands. Augusta National is a bastion of openness compared to Burning Tree.
But there is a difference between having the right to do something and something being right. The Supreme Court ruled that ‘The Slants’ have the legal right to their name. That doesn’t mean the name isn’t demeaning or that it is right for them to use it.
The same, of course, is true of Snyder’s team – more so, in fact, since at last look Snyder’s not an Indian. He is, in fact, Jewish, and once tried to sue a local newspaper for putting devil’s horns on his head in a story criticizing his ownership of the team. Snyder claimed the horns were anti-semitic and that the paper was attacking him because he was Jewish. There wasn’t a word in the story about his religion or any implication that his mean-spirited, incompetent ownership had anything to do with his being Jewish.
Snyder waved the religion card because he had no other card to play at that moment. Of course, when someone ELSE is offended by his team’s name, he’s all over free speech and tradition.
The latest defense of the name comes from a Washington Post poll which allegedly showed that 91 percent of American Indians polled weren’t offended by the name. Actually, most said they really didn’t care—if only because they had more important issues to deal with. Needless to say, Snyder and his pathetic defenders, have jumped all over the poll.
Free speech is a very important part of the constitution, especially nowadays. But it can’t be applied only when convenient, as Snyder and Henninger and others clearly want to do. You want to applaud the Supreme Court for saying free speech allows for disparaging names? You also need to applaud it for allowing flag-burning, not standing for the anthem, the KKK and a play depicting the possible assassination of a president.
There is a significant difference between having the right to do something and doing what’s right – something all of us, on the left and right, need to remember.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The Legends Club—Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and the Story of an Epic College Basketball Rivalry,” spent six months on the New York Times hardcover list and two months on the list in paperback. His new book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,”—will be published in October and is available on-line for pre-sale now. He is the winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award for mystery writing in the Young Adult category for, ‘Last Shot,’ and his new kids mystery, “Backfield Boys,” will be published in August.