Penalizing hate speech is unsettling business

Tuesday, February 15, 2000

They’ve pulled the plug on

This Web site — dedicated to the ridicule of the Atlanta Braves relief pitcher — offered some unusual perspectives on the player and his point of view.

The first image on the site was a photo of John Rocker adorned with Adolf Hitler’s hair and mustache. This image was followed by an animated man walking across the screen, dropping his pants and urinating into Rocker’s ear.

A bit deeper into the site were “pics of the week,” including a computer- generated image of Rocker and Barney (yes, the purple dinosaur) attending a Nazi rally.

This multimedia assault was removed from the Web a few weeks ago by the site’s disgusted webmaster, who fired this final salvo: “I have spent lots of hours on this site, but I cannot see spending anymore on that idiot.”

All of this came in response to Rocker’s now notorious interview with Sports Illustrated, which was peppered with racial and sexual stereotypes.

Sample passage: “(New York is) the most hectic, nerve-racking city. Imagine having to take the (No.) 7 train to the ballpark, looking like you’re (riding through) Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing.”

Comments like that — and his condemnation of “foreigners” living in the United States — were hateful and ignorant. Can — or should — anything be done to punish Rocker?

It’s clear that the government has no role. The First Amendment provides that government can’t punish someone for his speech. No arrest. No subpoena. No hearing.

But the First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law … .” It says nothing about Major League Baseball. Some prominent sports-writers urged that Rocker be suspended.

“Commissioner Bud Selig has no choice but to hand down a severe suspension,” wrote Hal Bodley of USA TODAY. “The full 2000 season is warranted. A return before the July 11 All Star Game is unthinkable.”

In the end, Selig opted for a lesser but significant penalty: a $20,000 fine and suspension until May 1. “Mr. Rocker should understand his remarks offended practically every element of society and brought dishonor to himself,” Selig said. “The terrible example set by Mr. Rocker is not what our great game is about.”

Selig, Bodley and others argued that there needs to be a higher — and enforceable — standard for role models.

Maybe so. But the retaliation against Rocker suggests that our society may be enacting some new rules.

The old rules — the ones we all grew up with — say that this is a free country where you have the right to express unpopular ideas. And although the Constitution guarantees only freedom from government interference, a belief in freedom of speech is at the core of our national character.

Suspending Rocker from his livelihood because of stupid comments made to a sports magazine raised the ante.

Rocker has just one place he can practice his profession. Kicking him out of the majors is the equivalent of revoking the license of a doctor or lawyer for comments made to a third party, regardless of the quality of their practice. Are we ready to take that step?

And if Rocker’s hateful comments truly hurt people, shouldn’t we be considering legislation targeting publications that reproduce, publicize and make a profit from those ugly views? Are we ready to take that step?

And if Rocker’s comments are hate speech, how would you characterize a Web site that characterizes Rocker and a popular children’s character as Nazis? Should we protect hate speech that responds to other hate speech? Or — rather than wait for the webmaster to tire of his own creation — should we just shut the whole thing down just to be safe? Are we ready to take that step?

The best antidote to John Rocker is to ignore him. The best antidote to is Johnrockersuckssucks. com.

Rocker throws a baseball for a living. He doesn’t hold public office or spend public funds. He has no administrative responsibilities and his only enforcement duties involve a fastball, high and inside.

Like any other American, he exercised his right to say what was on his mind. He was justifiably hammered in press and public for his ignorant remarks. That’s how free speech works.

It’s not the public trial and conviction of John Rocker that I’m concerned about.

It’s the sentencing that I find unsettling.