What exactly IS the First Amendment?


South Florida is well-known as a melting pot of cultures and perspectives.  Today our pot has moved from melting to boiling.

The short of it:  the new manager of the Miami Marlins caused a bit more than a stir when he was quoted in Time Magazine as saying he “loved” Fidel Castro.  He attempted to correct his phraseology, but only succeeded in digging a deeper hole (some might say “grave”).

The background of it:  Fidel Castro is a hideous man.  He is the last “great” dictator on earth.  He and his family and his army have perpetrated such terrible abuses on the beleaguered people of Cuba that those same people risk their very lives for the chance to flee to America.  Unless you personally know someone from Cuba or with family there, you cannot perceive the atrocities of this regime.  It’s impossible and insensitive to compare atrocities, but on an emotional level, he is to Cubans what Hitler is to Jews, what Stalin is to Russians and others who persecuted a single cultural group so specifically.

The dagger of it:  The Miami Marlins just opened their multi-million dollar, brand-spanking new, amazing baseball stadium right in the heart of an area of Miami called “Little Havana”, the heart of South Florida’s Cuban population.  They have spent years preparing for this moment by cultivating the goodwill of the Hispanic people, to the very point of hiring a Hispanic manager (albeit Venezuelan).

So.  We have the comment and we have the background within which the comment is heard.

Now, here’s the problem:  what exactly IS the problem?  Most people would suggest this is an opinion.  We all have the right to our opinion.  It’s in the First Amendment.  Presuming they actually know what the First Amendment actually does.  Some of them don’t, since they don’t understand how the manager might lose his job because of exercising his right to an opinion.  (For fact freaks, he didn’t lose his job, just got suspended for 5 games without pay).

Restricting ourselves merely to the topic at hand, the First Amendment guarantees the right to speech (commonly referred to as “free speech”) without censure or recrimination from the state.  In other words, you can say whatever you want without the government shooting you in the head…unlike in other places like, say, Cuba.

The First Amendment does not protect you from the consequences of your actions within civil or workplace disputes.  Thus, you can tell all your friends your neighbor is a pedophile who also cheats on his taxes, but he can sue you if, in fact, you are lying.  Similarly, if you’re the cashier at McDonald’s and you tell the person you won’t serve him the super-size meal and shake because he is a fat pig and needs to go on a diet, your boss is likely gong to fire you.

Okay, basic review out-of-the-way.  So, people say the manager has every right to speak his mind…that is correct.  The people who live in Little Havana and have been courted by the Marlins have every right to be horribly offended and demand punitive action.

So, really, the issue is not free speech, it’s stupid speech.  Stupid speech is protected by the First Amendment, too.  When spoken on a national forum as an employee of an organization, though, stupid speech is going to get you in trouble at best and fired at worst.

The manager held an impromptu press conference this morning to abjectly apologize.  He sounded sincere and, frankly, incompetent to speak on any subject other than baseball.  In the future, one hopes he’ll simply stick to what he does know.

Once the initial anger fades from the local Cuban population, there will hopefully be some recognition that excessive punishing of a man for speaking an unpopular statement is exactly the sort of environment they fled so many years ago.  To allow their hurt and outrage to overcome them would be to forget the very freedoms they came here to enjoy.

One of those freedoms, that of speech, is one of our most cherished.  We are fortunate as a country to have the right to an opinion and the opportunity to voice it…no matter how stupid.

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