Baseball should not take swings at free speech

Guest Column

The shooting is still going on in Iraq. And elsewhere too. The folks at the Baseball Hall of Fame canceled Tim Robbins’ appearance at that hallowed place when he was scheduled to appear there with his film “Bull Durham.” In the doing, they fired a shot, not at the Iraqis, but across the bow of the First Amendment. Why? Because Robbins dared to speak his mind publicly about the war.

The issue is not whether you agree or disagree with Robbins’ comments about the war. Not at all. The issue is whether James Madison’s insistence on freedom of speech and press, which the wise, intrepid founding fathers put to parchment, still has force and meaning.

If Americans become casual about the First Amendment, we will all bear witness to the slow undoing of the one clause in the Constitution, which guarantees all the others. Madison knew that we would never be free, democratic Republic without it.

On Thursday last I was proud to share a rostrum with the Speaker of the House, a man of integrity who is admired and respected by both sides of the aisle. We were both honored by the Bryce Harlow Foundation for service to the nation.

What follows is an excerpt of my remarks that evening, which are mightily relevant to the Baseball Hall of Fame’s exile of Tim Robbins:

“In these scrambling and unquiet times, my heart is wrenched when I watch our brave young volunteer warriors in armed combat in far-away place with death staring them in the face every hour. They are fighting with great valor, moving forward, never turning back, though what lies ahead is mostly unknown and unpleasant.

“Most of these young soldiers have never been in combat before. A long time ago, as a 21-year-old combat pilot who was shot at on 51 different deadly occasions, I know, oh how well I know, exactly what they are feeling: belly-spilling, throat-grabbing fear that terrorizes one’s senses. But in spite of fear, because they (and I) were superbly trained, they never waver, they never hesitate, they do their job, they do their duty. Every American has to pray these young fighting men and women come home soon, and safe, and triumphant.

“We can also take large pride that what we fight for abroad is alive and well in this country. I was on the Academy Awards a few short weeks ago. I followed Michael Moore, who enticed boos from the audience when he denounced what we were doing in Iraq. It was a heavy-footed blast, not very useful in an evening celebrating the art of the cinema. But the good news is that it confirmed that James Madison’s forty-five wonderful words, thank the Lord, still work as Madison intended. All American citizens have a holy right to speak their views, though some others might find what they say tawdry, meretricious, unsuitable or just plain stupid.

“That is precisely the citizen prize we want to make available to a new, democratic Iraq. It’s freedom’s music, the right to speak up without fear of official reprisal. Never forget that in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, there is no First Amendment. Which is why ever citizen in this country should each day try to make sure that for millions of Americans yet unborn, the First Amendment remains for them as it most assuredly does for us, the ornaments and the essentials of this free and loving land.”

All that I said that Thursday night rises to testify that when Tim Robbins, American citizen, speaks out he is armed with an unbreakable constitutional commitment. Therefore, anyone who exiles or attempts to still their voice for expressing an opinion, no matter how much they hate what is said, no matter how hotly contested the opinion, disfigures the very core of the title deeds of liberty in this country.

The irony is the Baseball Hall of Fame saw fit to flout free speech at the precise instant when brave young soldiers are fighting to install in a brutal dictatorship that same life-giving freedom to speak your mind without trembling that a government (or someone inspired by what they think is a patriotic thing to do) will strike you mute, or worse.

I pray that the Baseball Hall of Fame, which symbolizes the great and heroic, will reconsider its position. It would be mightily pleasing to James Madison who, at this moment, is stirring uneasily.

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