I recently wrote about the Metropolitan Opera Manager Peter Gelb cancelling soprano Anna Netrebko after she failed to condemn Vladimir Putin. Netrebko, who denounced the Ukrainian invasion, has appeared in pictures with Putin and has said that she will take a hiatus from performing after the controversy. I drew heated objections to my column for defending a supporter of Putin. I was defending free speech rather than Putin but it is an old saw used against civil libertarians when they object to public or private censorship. Now we have a different story out of Formula One racing where Russian driver Nikita Mazepin was dropped by Haas F1 despite a FIA ruling he could compete in Formula One races. The controversy has some unique elements tied to the racing but raises similar issues of compelled speech.
Haas dropped its sponsorship with Uralkali, the Russian fertilizer company co-owned by Dmitry Mazepin, the father of Nikita Mazepin and also a close associate and supporter of Vladimir Putin.
The dropping of the sponsorship of Uralkali is consistent with many companies and sports associations boycotting Russia and its businesses. Indeed, Formula One terminated its contract with the Russian GP, cancelling the Sochi races that Putin personally helped secure.
The team indicated that Mazepin’s driving on the team was linked to the sponsorship. That nepotism, however, did not bother the team when it cut the deal. Indeed, it kept Mazepin despite reported objections to his driving, including the nickname “Mazespin” for his propensity to draw caution flags. He did not rack up a single point in the prior season. The team also kept Mazepin after a groping controversy.
While sponsors likely have influence on the selection of drivers, Haas ultimately had the choice to accept or not accept a deal if it was conditioned on using the son of an owner. If Mazepin is a subpar driver, the team should admit that it sold out earlier but could not now justify his place on the team without the effective corporate bribe. The contract makes it seem like it is not principle but profits that found its limit for the Haas racing team.
Instead, the team went public by declaring the termination as a stand against the Russian invasion to “acknowledge the strong commitment made by the FIA to stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine.” That came after the FIA ruled that all drivers must agree to its principles of peace and neutrality and “acknowledge the strong commitment made by the FIA to stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine.” That meant that Mazepin could drive if he agreed with the policy. He later posted on Twitter he had agreed to the stipulations.
Despite my support for Ukraine, the policy itself raises free speech concerns. It is conditioning the participation of drivers on their accepting a political position of the company. The FIA declared that Russian and Belarusian drivers could only compete in international motorsport if they raced under a neutral flag and agreed not to express any support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
As with the kneelers in NFL games, private companies can require employees to refrain from engaging in protests or political statements during business hours. However, this is a requirement for employees or athletes to actually be silent on their views outside of competitions. Other companies, as with the Met, require that employees or contractors actually repeat the political position of the corporation, a form of coerced or compelled speech as a condition for employment.
Once again, it is important to address the rationalization on the left for attacks on free speech in recent years: the First Amendment only protects speech from government crackdowns. The First Amendment is not the full or exclusive embodiment of free speech. It addresses just one of the dangers to free speech posed by government regulation. Many of us view free speech as a human right. Corporate censorship of social media clearly impacts free speech, and replacing Big Brother with a cadre of Little Brothers actually allows for far greater control of free expression. As I have noted earlier, while liberal writers and artists were blacklisted and investigated in the 1950s, liberal activists have succeeded in censoring opposing views to an unprecedented degree in recent years. Rather than burn books, they have simply gotten stores to ban them or blacklist the authors, athletes, and artists.
Now back to Mazepin. Haas went out of its way to paint its decision as one compelled by principle. It terminated a contract that appeared an exercise in raw nepotism because it was moved by principle.
That principle, however, is troubling for some of us in the free speech movement. Since Haas is not saying that it terminated Mazepin as a subpar driver (which would require that it admit to selling out earlier), the move was read by many as part of its public stance against Russia. Again, it could say that Mazepin was forced on the team by his father and, now that the company is not a sponsor, it will drop its designated driver. It did not say that and Mazepin objected to the change in his status after complying with the FIA policy.
Mazepin issued a statement that “While I understand the difficulties, the ruling from FIA plus my ongoing willingness to accept the conditions proposed in order to continue were completely ignored and no process was followed in this unilateral step.”
I have no objection to the barring of Russian companies and flags from competitions in light of the unjustified and unprovoked invasion. Many of these companies and oligarchs have close ties and support from the government. However, the company is not barring protests or support for Russia in competitions. It is requiring silence from athletes who may support the claims of Russia or Putin as a condition for their competing. (Notably, the NHL has not forced athletes like Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin to denounce Putin despite prior expressions of support).
Most of us would have objected if companies required athletes to voice support for the Vietnam War during the 1960s or barring them from supporting one side in their private lives. As unpopular as it may be to raise the issue, this is deeply concerning from a free speech perspective. It is worthy of a debate on the role of corporations in compelling expression or coercing the silencing of political viewpoints.