A Bridge Tournament Too Far

Ken AshfordBush & Co.1 Comment

At the World Bridge Championship last month held in Shanghai, a team of women who represented the United States won the Venice Cup Award, and made a little protest at the awards dinner.

Here’s the picture —


There was no Dixie Chicks-like speech or anything like that.  Just a crude hand-drawn sign on the back of a menu saying "We did not vote for Bush".  It was a "spur-of-the-moment" thing they did.

As a result, the four women face sanctions from the United States Bridge Federation, consisting of one year’s suspension (which will include non-participation at the the World Bridge Olympiad next year in Beijing); a one-year probation after that suspension; 200 hours of community service “that furthers the interests of organized bridge”; and an apology drafted by the federation’s lawyer.


It would also require them to write a statement telling “who broached the idea of displaying the sign, when the idea was adopted, etc.”

You know, name names.  That may be moot, however, since somone has fessed up, according to CBS:

Gain Greenberg, the team’s nonplaying captain, said she decided to put up the sign in response to question from players from other countries about American interrogation techniques, the war in Iraq and other foreign policy issues.

"There was a lot of anti-Bush feeling, questioning of our Iraq policy and about torture," she said. "There wasn’t the amount of warmth you usually feel at these events."

Reasonable enough.  It’s embarrassing to represent this country nowadays, especially abroad.

Is this a First Amendment issue?  Two opposing viewpoints:

“This isn’t a free-speech issue,” said Jan Martel, president of the United States Bridge Federation, the nonprofit group that selects teams for international tournaments. “There isn’t any question that private organizations can control the speech of people who represent them.”

Not so, said Danny Kleinman, a professional bridge player, teacher and columnist. “If the U.S.B.F. wants to impose conditions of membership that involve curtailment of free speech, then it cannot claim to represent our country in international competition,” he said by e-mail.

I tend to agree with the view that this is not a First Amendment issue.  The USBF is not the federal government.

I do, however, disagree with this, from the website of the USBF (emphasis mine):

The VCW ["Venice Cup Winners"] have in no way acknowledged that the action has created a serious problem for the USBF. They instead have chosen to go on the offensive by extremely aggressive defensive actions, rather than simply acknowledging, “We made a mistake. What can we do to rectify the situation?” In the vast majority of situations a party whose defined role is to represent another party has a fiduciary responsibility to represent the interests of the principal ahead of their own interests. In cases where an agent or other representative acts adversely to the interests of the principal, they may in fact be subject to legal action. Certainly, the principal has no obligation to allow said agents to represent them in the future.

While there is some truth to that, it is countered by the obvious facts, and begs the question:  Does any reasonable person believe the four women were speaking for the United States Bridge Federation when they said "We did not vote for Bush"?

The clear answer is "no".  They were speaking for themselves.

It also seems clear to me that the four women did not violate any rules of the USBF.  You know how you can tell?  Because as a result of this incident, the USBF Board is considering changes to its disciplinary rules to "make certain that an incident like this does not happen again".  Tell tale sign — if you make the rule after the fact, then it clearly wasn’t there before the fact.

The specific grievance they were charged with (yes, I got in the muck a little by going to the original documents) was this:

Actions unbecoming a member of the USBF (or a person participating in a tournament conducted by the USBF), including but not limited to, improper actions at the time and site of a tournament, including parking lots, elevators, restaurants, and hotels.

I suppose reasonable minds kind differ on whether hold a small anti-Bush sign is "unbecoming a member of the USBF", but that’s kind of the point.  The rule is vague, ambiguous and totally arbitrary.

All in all, it was just a sign.  But the venom it has produced is outrageous, and the USBF is going way overboard.  Not overboard, I might add, as the rightwing Bush supporters, who use this incident to point out how ugly the women bridge players are, and how hot the Fox News babes are (seriously, read the comments).

UPDATE:  Everyone seems to be weighing in on this.  Read more at  Captain’s Quarters, Firedoglake, Outside The Beltway, The Newshoggers, Jon Swift, Political Machine, Rox Populi, Hot Air, The Carpetbagger Report, Buck Naked Politics, Gateway Pundit, The Gun Toting Liberal™, Weasel Zippers, The Garlic, Taylor Marsh, TPMCafe blogs, Wonkette, The Sundries Shack, AMERICAblog, Truthdig, Macsmind, Neptunus Lex, The American Street and Sister Toldjah.

Some views from Truthdig:

While there’s something inherently humorous about a brouhaha of this magnitude over a bridge tournament, there’s also something truly appalling about an organization that claims to represent the United States in the eyes of the world seeking retribution over an act of dissent—particularly one that holds the majority opinion.

From the very rightwing Captain’s Quarters:

However, the bridge organization seems to have also overreacted. Rather than scold the players and let them absorb their due obloquy, they have decided to sanction them for their political speech. The sign did not explicitly violate any rule, apparently, but the club will suspend them for conduct unbecoming a member. In doing so, they have transformed these women from immature, sniveling examples of BDS sufferers into First Amendment martyrs.

From satirist Jon Swift (see if you can catch the satire):

The First Amendment does not give people the right to yell anti-Bush slogans in a crowded theater, or even to talk during the movie at all. If we let a few lady Bridge players criticize the President, it could spread. The next thing you know Democrats in Congress will start opposing the President’s appointments, passing laws against torture or defying him on funding for the Iraq War.

And predictions from Pure Garlic:

Strap yourselves in for an onslaught of jingoistic, patriotic morals lessons, and a parade of "bridge experts" on the cable news frontier, pontificating on how this is degrading and ruining the game of Bridge – and the country.

And Mark Kleiman:

If you exercise your right to free speech, you’re unfit to represent the United States in international competition. Why is that so hard to understand?