Wisdom can come from unlikely sources. Yogi Berra, Winnie the Pooh, and most any movie from Pixar come to mind. But when it comes to free speech and tolerance, an odd trio from entertainment, sports, and politics have much to teach us.
Spoiler alert: the freedom of speech (Kanye West) includes the choice of what not to say (Lebron James), and government can’t play favorites (Beto O’Rourke).
Let’s begin with Kanye West, husband to Kim Kardashian, friend to Donald Trump, creator of the Yeezy, entertainer of the masses, and architect of a very different kind of Sunday Service. While Kanye continues to give us much to talk about (Met Gala, anyone?), let’s focus on comments he made last year, around the same time he informed everyone with electricity that he and President Trump “are both dragon energy.” Four days prior to the tweet heard round the world was the one that launched Kanye’s fascinating stream of consciousness.
Unsurprisingly, praising the mental processes of a conservative African American generated a response (and an entry in Candace Owen’s Wikipedia page). After this initial shot across the bow, and the reaction thereto, Kanye contended that freedom of thought is in danger, and opined that individuality is no longer prized.
The next few days treated followers to Kanye’s wide-ranging reflections. Suffice it to say, those tweets that followed could never be confused for conformity. Eventually, Kanye made his way back from wherever he went, and returned to the subject of free thought and tolerance, sharing his aforementioned affection for President Trump, as well as his (less reported) love for Hillary Clinton.
The response to Kanye’s tweets was swift. A piece in The New Yorker decried Kanye’s “vacant, galling love of Donald Trump.” Radar Online and Gossip Cop argued about whether Kim was or wasn’t concerned that Kanye was on drugs “as he spirals into another meltdown.” Fellow celebrity John Legend said “artists can’t be blind to the truth,” and some guy called Smi implored that someone “Make Kanye Black Again.” Chance the Rapper briefly weighed in to suggest that “Black people don’t have to be democrats,” but subsequently apologized and weighed out.
Meanwhile, the fury distracted the mob from the very important principle Kanye was illustrating: Freedom of speech extends to ideas that some may find disagreeable or even offensive.
Kanye wasn’t the first person to challenge the new orthodoxy that tolerance demands homogenization, but the unexpected nature and sheer audacity of his comments simultaneously broke the unwritten rule, and revealed its absurdity. (All it cost him was the public perception regarding his lucidity.)
Fast forward to today and LeBron James, the current Los Angeles Laker, three-time NBA champion, and founder of the “I Promise School.” But first, some background. Earlier this month, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey dunked the entire NBA into some very hot water with a seven-word (now-deleted) tweet: “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
China wasn’t happy. The Chinese Basketball Association and various sponsors and partners announced they would “suspend cooperation” with the Rockets, China’s consulate general in Houston urged the rockets to “correct the mistakes,” and the NBA quickly issued statements conveying their “great respect for the history and culture of China.”
LeBron wasn’t happy either. Conservative columnist Laura Ingraham once urged LeBronto “shut up and dribble,” a suggestion he forcefully rejected. And yet, just days ago, LeBron essentially told Daryl Morey to “shut up and manage,” chastising him for speaking about an issue on which he was “either misinformed or not really educated.”
Notably, LeBron is no stranger to media or social commentary. He once needed 75 minutes and a television special to announce his move [defection] to the Miami Heat. He has made “political statement[s]” in the past on issues including Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and Donald Trump, not to mention this inspirational message:
Powerful words. And yet, when given an opportunity to voice his support for the tens of thousands of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, LeBron James has — for now — chosen to bench himself. Given his statement regarding the potential financial harm of Morley’s words, I can’t help but wonder if LeBron’s reticence comes primarily from a fear alienating approximately 1.4 billion people (that’s a lot of jerseys).
Like Kanye, LeBron is now facing criticism. Unlike Kanye, the criticism is primarily due to what LeBron chose not to say. That criticism may be well-earned, but it also illustrates the second important principle: Freedom of speech includes the choice of what not to say.
That’s right, free speech includes the right to refrain from speaking. It doesn’t prevent us from exercising our free speech to criticize LeBron’s apparent decision to prioritize product endorsements over freedom endorsements. But it’s his right to stay silent, and we should support that right.
That brings us to Beto O’Rourke, the presidential hopeful who recently declared that religious institutions that support marriage as the union of one man and one woman should lose their tax-exempt status. Understand 501(c)(3) tax exemptions are provided for entities that fit certain operational criteria; tax-exempt status has never been based on the views of particular organizations, but rather on the type of work they do. It is disgraceful that Beto or any politician would advocate for this benefit to be administered – or withheld – based on viewpoint.
Nevertheless, Beto does effectively illustrate the third principle: When it comes to the First Amendment, government must be viewpoint neutral.
Thirty years ago, Justice William Brennan expressed this concept eloquently in Texas v. Johnson: “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
In our society, confused notions of “tolerance” and “diversity” are beginning to encroach upon established constitutional principles. In many circles, dissent is no longer tolerated. Uniformity of thought is replacing diversity of thought. What was once foundational is now feared.
“Ye” is right. It’s time to tolerate free thought. King James is allowed to shut up and dribble, if that’s what he wants to do. And Beto, well, Beto is dead wrong.
James Gottry is an attorney and vice president of public policy for the Dr. James Dobson Family Institute.