What a workout the First Amendment gets in this country. Someone is always claiming it protects his right to say or do anything he wants to do or say. Someone else is always claiming her First Amendment rights have been violated by fascists and totalitarians and all sorts of other evildoers.
The First Amendment must get awfully tired. It is in the news these days more than it was in 1789!
It is in the news most recently because actor Tim Robbins believes it is under attack, and that much of the fire has been directed at him.
A little background: Robbins and his companion, actress Susan Sarandon, were stars of Bull Durham, widely considered to be one of the best movies ever made about baseball. The National Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, N.Y., was planning to observe the fifteenth anniversary of the movie's release later this month, and had invited Robbins and Sarandon to take part. They accepted. They were looking forward to it, they said. They wanted to show the Hall to their kids.
Then, a few days ago, their invitation was canceled. In fact, the whole Bull Durham celebration was canceled. Dale Petroskey, president of the Hall of Fame and a former aide to President Ronald Reagan, said he was afraid Robbins and Sarandon would politicize the event. Robbins and Sarandon, you see, are among Hollywood's most outspoken foes of the war in Iraq in particular and the Bush administration in general.
"A chill wind is blowing in this nation," Robbins said in response to Petroskey's decision, and went on to claim his First Amendment rights are under siege.
Back to the foreground: Strictly speaking, Robbins is wrong. The withdrawn invitation has nothing to do with the First Amendment. As the Rocky Mountain News put it in Thursday's edition, "If George W. Bush had lobbied for the cancellation of Robbins' appearance, the actor might have a point. But the First Amendment merely guarantees that the government won't stifle your speech; it does not require private citizens to praise and honor you if you spout unpopular views. Indeed, it's their First Amendment right to revile you — even if you're a Hollywood star who assumes that praise and honor are his birthright."
True. But ...
Although Petroskey was well within his rights to cancel the invitation, he should not have done it the way he did. It was he, not Robbins, who politicized the event. It was he, not Robbins, who gave both Robbins and the media a chance to run the poor First Amendment ragged one more time. And it was he, not Robbins, who brought embarrassment to the Hall of Fame.
All of which could have been so very easily avoided.
It was prudent of Petroskey to worry about Robbins and Sarandon. They are not only celebrities with a cause, they are celebrities outspoken about their cause, panting for a forum. But rather than worrying and then acting, what he should have done was worry and then pick up the phone.
He should have called Robbins and Sarandon. He should have said, "Hey, Tim, Suse. This is baseball we're talking about up here, not politics. Do I have your word you won't say anything about the war or the president? Cross your heart? 'Cause if you don't, the deal's off."
Robbins has since insisted that he would have crossed his heart. In fact, he has insisted one of the principal attractions of the Bull Durham festivities was the respite they would have provided from politics. He was eager to get away from controversy, he said. He wanted to get back to baseball, if only for a few days.
Petroskey seemed to realize his mistake on Friday, when he issued a statement saying he was sorry he failed to call Robbins and Sarandon before canceling the celebration.
In an open letter to the 28,000 people who called or sent a letter or e-mail to the Hall, according to an Associated Press report, Petroskey blamed himself for bringing politics into the shrine.
"I inadvertently did exactly what I was trying to avoid," he wrote. "With the advantage of hindsight, it is clear I should have handled the matter differently."
It would have been nice if Petroskey had thought to avoid controversy rather than create it.
It would have been nice if the First Amendment had gotten a little time off.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.. ET/8 p.m. PT .