A pair of high-profile incidents involving racially charged comments have again spotlighted the First Amendment and just what protections it offers. First, there is Donald Sterling, the billionaire attorney and real estate investor who owns the Los Angeles Clippers NBA franchise. A recording of a private telephone call between Sterling and a female friend contained many comments that can reasonably deemed racist. The comments seemingly confirmed suspicions people have harbored for years about Sterling. Then there is Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has been embroiled for years in a dispute over fees for grazing cattle on federal lands. Among other things, Bundy has acknowledged wondering whether “Negroes” were better off as slaves. The controversy the remarks from Sterling and Bundy and the condemnation they sparked — plus the lifetime ban NBA Commissioner Adam Silver imposed on Sterling — have some people asking “What about their First Amendment rights?” The First Amendment was written to keep government from criminalizing speech and other forms of expression. That is why no one threw Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines in prison for declaring during a 2003 concert in London she was embarrassed President George W. Bush is a fellow Texan. In response, however, some radio stations stopped playing Dixie Chicks music and some people refused to buy the group's recordings, a pair of reactions equally protected by the First Amendment.
So the NBA can say it doesn't want to be associated with the views of the sort Sterling was heard espousing on the recording and banish him. The Constitution, on the other hand, may make it hard for the league to force Sterling to sell the Clippers.