The Latest Free Speech Debates

Malcolm Jacob, Contributing Writer

The line between professionalism and political rhetoric has never been clear-cut. Common means of distributing information, such as TV broadcasts and the Internet, can be used to spread messages to thousands of viewers at once. When is the proper time and place to make politically or socially charged statements? And do such statements violate the contracts between parties, or perhaps the unwritten rules? This is not a new topic of conversation in the United States.

But it becomes even more complicated when this issue crosses national boundaries and involves cases of human rights. In particular, there are two recent incidents that demonstrate the risks posed by making political statements. Critics see these happenings as more than just rule-breaking: they see them as signs that American companies are censoring free speech and selling out to foreign governments.

The first incident comes from the world of video games. On October 6, during the conclusion of a tournament of the game “Hearthstone,” winner Ng Wai Chung (known by his handle “Blitzchung”) made a statement on the live stream expressing support of protestors in Hong Kong. Immediately following this, the company Activision Blizzard decided to strip Chung of his prize money, and also suspend him for twelve months.

Since these steps have been taken, there has been considerable debate over the company’s motive behind their decision. In an official statement Blizzard cited a violation of one of the competition rules, which states that participants may not engage in action that “brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard image”. Such a violation would result in a removal from the competition and of any reward.

However, an important part of this conversation is Blizzard’s financial ties to China. For one, the company earns about 12% of its profit from the Asia Pacific market. Additionally, it has been noted that the Chinese company Tencent owns 5% of Activision Blizzard. So, the question is, was the video game company simply enforcing its rules, or was it suppressing free speech in order to preserve a portion of its revenue? Regardless of the answer, Blizzard’s actions have been criticized by U.S. lawmakers from both major political parties.

A second, similar incident started on October 4, and it stemmed from a single tweet. Daryl Morey, general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, posted on Twitter showing his own support of the Hong Kong protestors. This led to an avalanche of response from a number of parties. For one, several Chinese businesses cut ties with the league, as well as the previously mentioned Tencent, a major broadcasting company. This is also true for the Chinese Basketball Association, whose current president is Yao Ming, a Hall of Famer and former Rockets player. One more prominent critic is Taiwanese-born Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, who referred to the protesters as a “separatist movement.”

For Morey, there are no immediate repercussions from his statement. He removed his post and released an apology addressed to all viewers in China, but this did little to quiet global reactions on either side. The league issued a similar statement but has not outright condemned the manager. It’s been suggested that the Chinese government asked the NBA to fire Morey, but this claim has been denied.

Added to this already messy situation is a bit of satire from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of “South Park”. A perfectly timed recent episode of the TV series mocked the efforts of American businesses to appeal to the Chinese government. When China removed the series from major platforms, effectively banning it from the public, Parker and Stone issued a mock apology. The statement read in part: “Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts. We too love money more than freedom and democracy.”

Recently, Blizzard decided to reinstate Chung’s prize money and they shortened his suspension time. As for the NBA, commissioner Adam Silver stated that the league has already lost millions of dollars in the wake of Morey’s statement.

The historical context to the Hong Kong protests is too deep to be fully covered in a short article. What’s happening on our own soil is that people from the sports and video game communities are now showing their support of the protestors. Regardless of how you feel about political statements in broadcasting, you can’t deny that it generates response and discussion from the public.