Journalists are supposed to defend the freedom of speech, no matter what, right?
But what happens when someone asks us to defend the right of someone to advocate taking our rights away? What then?
An ESPN.com column last week illustrated why someone’s free exercise of speech shouldn’t always be celebrated by journalists.
ESPN’s Jemele Hill offered a defense of professional football player David Tyree, who campaigned against marriage equality in advance of last week’s vote in New York State approving the right of gays and lesbians to marry.
“Tyree’s comments have, predictably, generated two reactions: disdain and ridicule,” Hill wrote. “I’m going to try a different reaction: acceptance.”
Hill never endorses Tyree’s position, but she does criticize his critics.
“Tyree is being depicted as an uninformed religious zealot, but at least he’s up-front. He helped deliver thousands of petitions against the same-sex marriage bill and joined the National Organization for Marriage at a recent news conference in Albany,” she wrote.
“That doesn’t sound like someone who is crazy. Rather, it sounds like someone who isn’t going to back down from what he believes.”
Fair enough. But I don’t believe that responsible writers, including Hill, should spend their time with their audiences defending individuals who work to deny rights to others.
The debate over the freedom to marry is a different type of issue than whether to balance the budget by raising taxes or cutting services. Or whether the city or the team should pay for the new local sports arena. This is about whether people are going to have a right, not what they choose to do with it.
Hill references Tyree’s religious motivation for his position. Since Hill raised the topic of religion, I’ll bring up my religious motivation in writing about this issue.
My religion – Unitarian Universalism – strongly defends the freedom to marry for all people, regardless of sexual orientation. But that’s not my primary motivation here. It’s something that the former minister at my church told me several years ago:
“The only thing we can’t tolerate is intolerance.”
An absolutist defense of tolerance becomes an intellectual trap. Tolerate everything, and you must tolerate the efforts of your opponents to silence you, to isolate you, and ultimately to disempower you. Opponents of various rights have grown wise to the irony, and attempted to use it to undermine the rights of others. In this example, Hill effectively argues for accepting Tyree’s religious freedom… which he cites to deny marriage rights to gays and lesbians.
Sorry, but while my religion promotes tolerance, I can’t tolerate intolerance.
Now, if Tyree’s critics were arguing that the football player should not have the legal right to campaign against marriage equality, I’d stand with Hill. Or if Tyree and his allies were objecting to the New York law forcing their religious leaders to perform ceremonies contrary to their faith, I’d stand with them, too.
But the New York law does not do that; it explicitly exempts religious leaders from any liability from refusing to perform a marriage ceremony that their faith will not permit them to endorse. Nor has anyone that I’ve found declared that Tyree and other marriage equality opponents should not have the legal right to campaign, to debate and to witness their views.
Tyree’s foes have, as Hill illustrated, called him a bigot and a jerk. That’s fair game, in my view. While Tyree and his allies have, and should have, the legal right to organize, speak and campaign against the rights of others, the rest of us are under no moral or ethical obligation to remain quiet and accept their intolerance without offering our criticism in response.
Tolerance is part of my faith. It is part of my professional ethic. But I won’t allow others to use that tolerance as a weapon against me or against people fighting for the same rights that others enjoy. Nor do I feel like letting a high-profile writer in a popular forum excuse such an attempt without responding to that.
As we continue into the Internet era, millions more voices are joining our global chorus. Collectively, we’re eventually going to come to some equilibrium, some consensus about how we’re all going to engage in conversation online. While I hope that our legal standards continue to protect the rights of all to advocate even the most obnoxious positions, I also hope that our personal standards never grow so lax that we feel like we must accept, without criticism, those who would deny our rights, or the rights of others.
Want to write about David Tyree? Fine. Write about his role in one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history, if you have something fresh to say about that. But don’t waste your audience’s valuable time writing about his opposition to the freedom to marry. Unless you’re going to take the opportunity to stand with his critics.
Because the one thing we shouldn’t tolerate is intolerance.