Saturday, March 02, 2002

Free speech?


Coalition may wind up in court

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        Free speech isn't truly free. The right to open your mouth and spout off comes with a price.

        This week, the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati learned that lesson the hard way.

        The group's call for an economic boycott of the city could wind up being heard in court, with its leaders facing a costly lawsuit.

        That happens in this country when one person's idea of free speech hurts innocent parties.

        The Coalition has sent letters to entertainers asking them to boycott Cincinnati because of the city's racial climate. Some performers have foolishly honored those requests without doing their homework. Or facing facts.

        That's the performers' right. Stars such as Bill Cosby and Wynton Marsalis can be poorly informed. They can also cancel their shows. It's a free country.
       

Unnecessary pain

        The cancellations have hurt the Cincinnati Arts Association. That group, known as the CAA, puts acts on stage at the Aronoff Center, Memorial Hall and Music Hall. The Cosby and Marsalis shows were set for the Aronoff.

        This week, the CAA sent the Coalition a bill for $77,350 as one of several demands.

        The bill covers damages from the cancellations. Lost revenues. Advertising. Set-up costs. Processing refunds.

        The CAA also demands that the Coalition stop contacting performers booked into its venues. The arts association wants all of the boycotters' information on entertainers they have contacted.

        Payment's due the same date all of the demands are to be met: March 16. That's the date trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was going to blow his horn at the Aronoff.

        If the boycotters refuse to pay, and ignore the demands, the Coalition could be facing a day in court. That's one date it can't boycott.
       

Tread lightly

        Sending bills and going to court are well within the CAA's rights. The association can sue for “tortious interference with a contract or business relationship.”

        Roughly translated, that legal term means: “Protest all you want. Just don't interfere unjustly with my right to do business. Or, I'll see you in court.”

        Coalition members have scoffed at the threatened lawsuit. They cite the protection of free speech.

        They're mistaken.

        True, someone may yell “fire!” in a crowded theater. But if nothing's burning and innocent people get trampled in the rush for the exits, there's a problem.

        Whoever caused that problem will pay the price for exercising what they might think is a right to free speech.

        By the same token, the Coalition can call for entertainers to boycott this town. The group can send letters to performers stating: “We urge you not to come to Cincinnati.”

        The Coalition can do all that. It's a free country.

        But, when the boycott hurts innocent bystanders, they also have a right to protest. They can go to court. And seek justice.

        The CAA can justifiably claim it's an innocent party. Its business dealings have nothing to do with the boycott's demands. Nor can it meet those demands. Yet the CAA is being held economic hostage.

        So, the arts association is fighting back. It's sending bills. Making demands. And contemplating going to court.

        Good.

        The Coalition wants to cripple Cincinnati's economy. Now it's getting a taste of its own medicine.

        A lawsuit could take a financial bite out of the Coalition. It could also have a beneficial effect on the boycotters. They might learn the cost — and true value — of free speech.

       Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; e-mail cradel@enquirer.com.
       

       



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