ACLU Urges Baseball Hall of Fame to Let the Show - and Democracy - Go On

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
April 18, 2003 12:00 am

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NEW YORK – In a letter sent today to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, the American Civil Liberties Union urged president Dale Petroskey to reconsider his decision to cancel a 15th anniversary celebration of the movie “”Bull Durham”” because stars Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon have spoken out against the war in Iraq.

While recognizing that the Hall of Fame is a private entity entitled to set its own agenda, the ACLU expressed concern that the organization’s actions “”reflect a disregard for the value of dissent in a free society.”” At a time when the United States is seeking to bring democracy to Iraq, the ACLU noted, “”the world is watching not only our conduct on the battlefield but our conduct at home,” the ACLU letter said.

“”We need to have not just a tolerance for but an appreciation of those who see it as their duty to criticize the government,”” said Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU, who along with officials from the New York Civil Liberties Union co-signed the letter. “”In a free society, criticism of government is not only a right, it is a responsibility, especially during times of national crisis.””

The ACLU also pointed out that Petroskey diminished his claim that the Hall of Fame is politically neutral by placing the organization on record as supporting the war. Further, the ACLU letter said, “”it appears that you reached your decision without first contacting Mr. Robbins or Ms. Sarandon to determine whether they intended to criticize President Bush at the Cooperstown event,”” a move that “”might also have averted a needless and embarrassing controversy.””

“”This is one of too many examples of public entities attempting to stifle dissent,”” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU. “”The Hall of Fame and its officials are entitled to their views, but unfortunately they are taking their cues from the Administration in Washington, which would have us believe that dissent is unpatriotic.””

The text of the letter follows.

April 18, 2003

Mr. Dale Petroskey, President
National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
25 Main Street
Cooperstown, New York 13326

Dear Mr. Petroskey:

We are writing to express our concerns with respect to your decision to cancel a weekend celebration of the 15th anniversary of the movie “”Bull Durham”” which had been scheduled for April 26 and 27. As reported in the New York Times, you cancelled the celebration because two of the leading actors in the movie, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, had been invited to participate in the event and you apparently believed that they might use the occasion to criticize President George W. Bush and his policies with respect to Iraq.

At the outset, we recognize the right of the Hall of Fame to set an agenda for its events and to exercise editorial control over that agenda. We further recognize that the Hall of Fame may regard itself as an apolitical entity and that, as such, it may seek to avoid having its events serve as platforms for political expression. In this regard, however, we must note that your April 7 letter to Mr. Robbins is conspicuously political. You expressly announce that the Hall of Fame “”[a]s an institution?stand[s] behind [the] President and our troops in this conflict.”” We do not deny your right to convey your own views on this matter. And we leave to the Hall of Fame Board of Directors the propriety of your placing the Hall of Fame on record as supporting the war. But, quite clearly, your letter diminishes the force of any claim that the Hall of Fame has chosen to remain politically neutral on the matter of the President’s war against Iraq.

It also appears that you reached your decision without first contacting Mr. Robbins or Ms. Sarandon to determine whether they intended to criticize President Bush at the Cooperstown event. Such communication in advance of your announced cancellation of the event would have been a matter of common courtesy. It might also have averted a needless and embarrassing controversy. At the very least, your failure to contact Mr. Robbins and Ms. Sarandon in advance of your decision has created a public perception that your concern had less to do with what they might say at Cooperstown than with the political opinions that they have previously expressed elsewhere.

More fundamentally, our problem with your letter of April 7 is not that you have chosen to express support for the President and it is not with the way that you went about reaching your decision. Rather, it is that the letter reflects a disregard for the value of dissent in a free society. Indeed, you offer a vision of free speech that is deeply incompatible with the concept of “”uninhibited, robust and wide open”” debate – a concept that is basic to our democracy. In essence, your fundamental position seems to be that criticism of the President should be suspended in times of war. You suggest that, because of these “”sensitive”” times “”in our nation’s history””, criticism of the President is irresponsible in that “”it undermines the U.S. position”” and exposes “”our troops to even more danger.”” Your claim, however, ignores the possibility that criticism of the President in times of war might have a mediating effect which limits executive overreaching and might even save lives of Americans and Iraqis, combatants as well as civilians. The impact of dissent during times of war is, at the least, a debatable issue. But, there can be little debate about the kind of society in which we would be living if, indeed, there were no discussion and no dissent and if, instead, we all marched lock-step off to war in a paroxysm of patriotic fervor. It is not the kind of society that we would wish for ourselves or our children.

The fact remains that our country has been deeply divided about issues of war and peace and about the wisdom, morality and legality of the war in Iraq. It is, therefore, unsurprising that a great many people have chosen to express their disagreement with the President’s policies in many places and in many ways. An open society and its leading institutions should be fully capable of accommodating whatever modest untidiness accompanies such dissent. Officials at the Hall of Fame should not, therefore, feel the need to shrink from such controversy as if disagreement about public issues were something to be feared. Instead, they can and should embrace uninhibited expression and dissent for that is strength of our democracy, not a weakness. And if individuals use the privilege of uninhibited expression to convey wrong-minded views, there is ample opportunity within a free marketplace of debate and discussion to respond to those views.

There is one final point to be made and it is an observation we advanced several weeks ago in a letter to the New York Stock Exchange, in connection with the exclusion of Al-Jazeera reporters from the floor of the Exchange. The point was this: Our country has undertaken a war that President Bush has claimed rests, at least in part, on a desire to bring democracy to Iraq. It has, therefore, been a matter of considerable regret that as we have pursued this war abroad, many individuals and institutions have been prepared to curtail democratic values at home. But, as noted, the values of ideological diversity and pluralism and free expression are central to our democracy. And, during times of war, it is vital that we, as a society, redouble our commitment to those values. For we teach by the examples we set. And the world is watching not only our conduct on the battlefield but our conduct at home, as well.

For these reasons we urge that you reverse your decision and that you do so as a demonstration by the Hall of Fame of its commitment to ideological diversity and pluralism.


Arthur Eisenberg
NYCLU Legal Director

Donna Lieberman
NYCLU Executive Director

Anthony Romero
ACLU Executive Director

cc: Tim Robbins
Susan Sarandon

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