As Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling awaits a decision on whether he will retain ownership of his basketball team, the response of the NBA brass to his reprehensible comments has been swift and resolute: A lifetime ban from the NBA and a $2.5 million fine for opening his mouth and spewing hate.
Although the stance has been met immediately with unanimous praise from players, civil rights organizations and the public majority nationwide, the long-term fallout from this ugly incident may be less clear.
No one denies that Mr. Sterling is getting the punishment and public outcry he deserves, but the “freedom of speech” argument stands on shakier ground in today’s tech-ready world. At any given moment, without any given warning, anything you say may (and likely will) be used against you in the court of public opinion.
Whether Sterling himself asked to be recorded because he tends to forget things is still up for debate. The fact remains that remarks he believed were being made in private conversation were used against him in the most public way possible.
The prevailing mentality is that privacy doesn’t extend to public figures. If you’re in the limelight, beware of what’s in the shadows. Besides sports fans, did anyone really know who Donald Sterling was before this audio leaked? And are we reaching that point where in order to maintain a sense of privacy, we either remain shut-ins or keep our mouths shut?
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes drew the line when it came to personal freedoms: “Your liberty to swing your fist ends just where my nose begins.” Where is that line drawn when it comes to the spoken word, especially when you believe to be saying things in confidence?
As public relations professionals, our jobs revolve around defining the right things to say to the right audiences. We’re acutely aware that nothing is ever “off the record,”even in our amicable relationships with members of the press, because we’re trained to be on our guard, no matter how relaxed a conversation may be.
One of the classic quotes from The Godfather, “This is the life we chose,” applies to our profession. We’ve signed up for the scrutiny and know what to expect. But what about the “average Joe”? How do you give the public at large a media training session? How do we, or should we, begin to watch every word we say?
Some will argue that this will really only be an issue for those in positions of fame and power. But in today’s “world gone viral” and 15-second news cycle, anyone can become a “Johnny-on-the-spot” journalist or private eye. Comments from private conversation caught on a smartphone can cost you a friend, a partner, a job or more.
Perhaps it’s time we pay closer attention to another one of Justice Holmes’ adages: “Speak clearly, if you speak at all; and carve every word before you let it fall.”