Free Speech, Ravens, and Chicken
Last week Maryland politician Emmett C. Burns Jr. wrote this bizarre letter to Steve Bisciotti, the owner of the Baltimore Ravens. He was upset that a Ravens player, Brendon Ayanbadejo, was speaking out in favor of gay marriage. The letter is a diatribe against free speech as much as anything. Take for instance this gem:
“Many of my constituents and your football supporters are appalled and aghast that a member of the Ravens Football Team would step into this controversial divide and try to sway public opinion one way or another.”
He also throws in that Ayanbadejo should “concentrate on football and steer clear of dividing the fan base.” After comments so obviously anti-free speech the media has blasted Burns. I can’t blame them.
But I must ask the question, aside from the side of the issue being supported, how are Ayanbadejo’s comments any different than Dan Cathy’s [Chick-fil-a President]? In both cases a person in a public position, outside of politics, made a statement about their stance on an issue being debated in our country at this time. Both the media and the public have reacted to these two men and their comments very differently, and I’ll get to those reactions in a minute. My desire in this post is not to take some stance on this issue. I have one, but it is in process, and the thrust of this post is not to debate the issue of gay marriage–rather to make some observations about the way free speech is being handled in our country in relation to the issue. So my first observation from this most recent story is that Ayanbadejo and Cathy both made comments about gay marriage as public figures outside of politics.
From there we can dive into the reactions of the media and the public–let’s take the media first. Cathy was lambasted by countless media outlets for his comments. Ayanbadejo’s comments would never have made news if it wasn’t for Burns Jr.’s crazy letter (which I suppose is free speech too). It seems that free speech is accepted without much fanfare for those in favor of gay marriage but vilified for anyone opposed to it. The media has picked a side on this issue and so the majority of coverage is aimed at promoting a stance, not reporting. I reiterate, my point here is not about whether that is good or bad, only that it is. You may think the media is right because their stance on gay marriage is right, or you may not, but either way I am only pointing out that free speech is lauded on one side of this issue and demonized on the other.
Now for the public. I think the public largely follows the media (not necessarily in terms of their stance on an issue but in terms of how big an issue is perceived to be). For instance, the media made a huge deal of Dan Cathy’s comments and Chick-fil-a became the location of a cultural battle. People on both sides of the issue used their patronage or boycotting of a restaurant to make a statement. The long lines at Chick-fil-a, endless Twitter posts with #chicken, and subsequent protests resulted from the public taking their cue from the media that what Dan Cathy said was a big deal. Because the media is reporting some about Burns Jr. and Ayanbadejo, but very little in comparison, I doubt anyone will be selling their Ravens jersey or boycotting the games (or making a point to go to them for that matter). We as the public allow the media to decide what is a big deal and what isn’t. In retrospect I think it’s funny [and sad?] that we all allowed the media to get us riled up over what a restaurant owner thinks about gay marriage. I’m just not sure why we should care that much. I digress.
This issue is an interesting case study in free speech, the power of the media, and public action. Just some observations.