Defending the Indefensible — NBA Owner Donald Sterling and His Racist Comments
The right of an individual to conduct intimate relationships in the intimacy of his or her own home seems to me to be the heart of the Constitution’s protection of privacy.
— Harry A. Blackmun (Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court)
Privacy is not something that I’m merely entitled to, it’s an absolute prerequisite.
— Marlon Brando (Academy Award-Winning Actor)
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By now, just about everyone has heard the outrageous remarks attributed to Donald Sterling, first reported a few days ago.
Sterling, who owns the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Clippers franchise, made some shockingly insensitive verbal remarks with highly-offensive racial overtones during a private telephone call, which was secretly recorded by a former girlfriend. Now estranged from her former sugar daddy, the gold-digger went public with an abbreviated audio segment of a heated conversation between the two, which included Sterling’s ghastly rant against Black people.
The comments speak for themselves. They’re as appalling as they are indefensible. No one can possibly justify the content nor the context in which they were made. Moreover, they’re consistent with Sterling’s well-documented pattern of discrimination and racial insensitivity as a businessman.
Nevertheless, Sterling does have one credible mode of defense in his corner, and that’s his inherent right to personal privacy.
Let’s get one thing straight. This was a discrete, off-the-record, behind closed doors telephone call between just two people — namely Sterling and his then-girlfriend/mistress. She recorded the conversation completely without his knowledge. California State law is quite clear about this. The law reads as follows: California makes it a crime to record or eavesdrop on any confidential communication, including a private conversation or telephone call, without the consent of all parties to the conversation. READ MORE HERE
That the former girlfriend not only recorded a private telephone call, but then later released it publicly (for her own selfish purposes) seems like solid ground for serious monetary damages. Were I in a position to advise Sterling, I’d suggest filing a civil lawsuit immediately and attach a lot of zeroes to the damages.
Of course, the NBA and its fans are better off knowing Sterling is an avowed racist. But the law makes no distinction between recording confidential communications for the sake of the common good, versus other motives.
Beyond the cries of “what in the hell do we do with this guy now?” which must be bouncing off the walls at NBA headquarters, this controversy is intriguing because of the potentially-dangerous precedent for future exposures of a similar kind. All people are entitled to some degree of privacy — especially within their own homes and workplaces, as well as while talking on their telephones. All people should enjoy the right to speak freely in private conversations without any fear their words will be intercepted, recorded, and disseminated publicly. After all, who among us hasn’t uttered a foolish remark we wish could be taken back? Fortunately, most of our telephone conversations aren’t recorded by anyone (aside from the National Security Agency) and won’t ever be used to humiliate us. No one really cares what we do or what we say — which I suppose has some advantages.
Yet, imagine if you will, the people closest to you secretly recording what you say without your knowledge or consent. Then sometime later, during a moment of bitterness, a former employee or wife or husband or girlfriend or boyfriend or in-law or business partner or ex-friend or whoever decides to release an audio recording containing your voice. Careers could be ruined. Lives might even be in danger.
Think about it. Is this really the world we want to live in? Where we have to fear cameras and microphones? Where we can’t freely express our emotions to the people who are closest to, even though some of those things we say and believe might be vile?
It’s not enough to simply advise people to watch what they say, even in private. Fact is, we must be able to vent frustrations and partake in open dialogue. It’s essential to living in a free society. We shouldn’t have to worry about listening devices all around us, or former lovers becoming turncoats holding the smoking guns of scandalous recordings. That’s downright Orwellian.
Even celebrities and public officials are entitled to some measure of personal privacy. While Sterling is neither a celebrity nor a public official, he is undoubtedly in the public eye, by choice. But simply being rich and powerful doesn’t disqualify someone from rightful legal protections.
We’ve clearly become a world of voyeurs, with outlets like TMZ (which profit from scandal) as our eyes and ears. We’re obsessed with celebrities and what they do and say. With cameras and recording devices now in the palm of every single hand via millions of smart phones, anyone who’s famous must constantly be on guard. Everyone must be careful. Nothing is private anymore. Everyone stands the remote chance that something they say will be recorded and later played back and revealed to the world. With the explosion of social media, these dangers are multiplied more so since any eyebrow-raising remark is likely to get plastered all over Twitter and Facebook within seconds. And once it’s said and out there, there’s no way to put the genie back into the bottle.
I don’t see this as a good thing. Not at all. Our conversations should be private. Our phone calls should be protected by law. The things we say to others within a relationship should be confidential.
Yes, everyone deserves the same right to personal privacy. This goes for presidents. This goes for royalty. This goes for movie stars. This even goes for bigots.
Postscript: It was brought to my attention that some if not all of the recordings were made during a face-to-face conversation, and Sterling had expressed his consent to record everything that was said. Details remain sketchy at the moment and I don’t know if this is true. But I do want to set the record straight as more details are released.
Note: Since the issue is likely to come up, let me address it in advance. Critics may charge me with hypocrisy, defending Sterling while attacking Cliven Bundy, the outlaw rancher who made remarks of a similar nature last week. However, Bundy’s comments were said publicly in front of reporters, which makes them fair game. Bundy knew his comments would be heard and reported. Conversely, Sterling was speaking privately without the knowledge his comments were being recorded. In my opinion, that makes this a very different case.