Wednesday, January 19, 2000

As theologians are wont to point out, it is not a great accomplishment to love those who love you. To love those who hate you is another matter altogether. Very few of us are able to do so without a great deal of effort. In addition to our religious challenges, the difficulties inherent in loving those who hate us are evident in the area of free speech.

As Americans, our free speech privileges are guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Ostensibly, the idea of “free speech” is something nearly every American will claim to cherish. But moving beyond the glittering generalities, a devil begins to emerge in the details of how we actually apply that principle to our everyday lives. In an age of professed tolerance for every form of social deviancy, misanthropy and sociopathic behavior, we are discovering there is little or no tolerance for those whose stated views make us feel uncomfortable.

There is no need to invoke the First Amendment to protect polite, enjoyable social banter among friends, just as there is no need to pray for the inner strength to love those who love us. The test comes when someone says something hateful that we despise. Will anyone among us leap to that offender’s defense? It is highly doubtful.

A case in point is the recent controversy involving an interview given to Sports Illustrated magazine by Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker. Rocker had launched into a redneck rant against the people he saw inhabiting the streets and subways of New York City. Rocker, who grew up in a rural area of Georgia, is not pleased with the non-English-speaking immigrants, AIDS victims, minorities and unwed mothers he has observed in New York City.

In response to Rocker’s statements, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig ordered Rocker to undergo “psychological testing.” This is a fascinating, yet chilling, response to Rocker’s comments. Had Braves President Stan Kasten simply fired Rocker, perhaps most people would have just shrugged their shoulders and thought to themselves, “Well, I suppose if I said or did something really stupid, my boss would fire me, too.”

But that is not what is happening here. Rocker’s statements have placed him in a position where his mind will be probed, by a trained mental health professional, in an attempt to uncover the presence of a mental disease. What’s next a “re-education process,” or “sensitivity training,” in order to be rendered fit for the new mantle of political correctness? Lest we forget, one of the predominant uses of psychiatry in the Soviet Union during the Cold War was to “re-educate” political dissidents. The Soviets believed that if one opposed communist totalitarianism, one therefore had to be “crazy” and consequently would be “treated” by psychiatrists who were in reality nothing more than stooges for the KGB.

It is odd that Rocker is being relegated to the psychiatrist’s couch in an era when major league athletes are being permitted to physically assault their coaches, to use and sell illegal drugs, to beat their wives, to curse at spectators, and to get arrested for drunken driving. I am not aware of any instances where these other transgressors have been forced to undergo psychological testing.

Whither John Rocker? Will he be tested, diagnosed and then declared to have been “cured”? Moreover, after accepting his “cure,” will he then robotically spout all the appropriate politically correct lines in conformity with the reigning paradigms of multiculturalism? Will his speech become a paean to the joys of “diversity” and “sensitivity”? Frankly, I hope not. We need the First Amendment to protect people who say disgusting things. The vile statements uttered by less than 1 percent of the populace simply reinforce the views of the other 99 percent of the populace who are repulsed by them.

I do not want to live in a world where people with strange, ugly points of view are sent to psychiatric hospitals. On the contrary, I want those people to display their wares openly in the free marketplace of ideas, where their venomous views can be soundly denounced, roundly trounced and dispelled by those who believe in truth, justice, equality and fair play.

What happened to John Rocker is not limited only to professional baseball. Large corporations have been known to refer their employees for psychological evaluation. What is being lost here is the fact this practice may not be permitted under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Section 1630.14(c) of the ADA regulations permits employers to make inquiries or require fitness for duty exams when there is a need to determine whether an employee is still able to perform the essential functions of his or her job.

Granted, the ADA regulations are complex, but in a nutshell, an employer-dictated exam must be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” John Rocker’s essential job function is to strike out the other team’s batters in the ninth inning of a baseball game. The ADA regulations refer to “business necessity,” not to “political expediency.” Sadly, in this day and age, the two may have become one and the same.

Donald Russo is an attorney in Bethlehem, Pa.

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