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EDITORIAL: China, the NBA and the left’s attacks on free speech

The embers of the NBA’s China controversy were smoldering this week when the league’s most prominent player emptied a barrel of lighter fluid on the fire pit.

On Tuesday, reporters had a chance to question LeBron James about the tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey supporting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. In response, the Chinese government has demanded an apology and threatened to limit cooperation with the league, which is enormously popular in the country.

Mr. James did himself no favors with his timorous and facile comments.

“Yes, we do have freedom of speech,” Mr. James allowed, “but at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others. … So I don’t believe (Daryl Morey was) … educated on the issue at hand, and he spoke. And so many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually.”

Oh, my. The social media trolls properly torched Mr. James. But it’s worth noting that the vast majority of the reaction to the NBA/China controversy has focused on the league protecting its economic interests at the expense of basic democratic principles. Mr. James’ statement reveals another issue at play here.

NBA players and brass have long touted their league as a vanguard of progressivism, even moving the 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte, N.C., to protest legislation regarding transgender bathroom use. The NBA has cultivated a commitment to “social justice” and leftist political activism as part of its brand.

In recent years, however, the concept of free speech has come under increasing attack from the left as an oppressive tool of the privileged that can cause actual physical — not just emotional — damage to the downtrodden. In his 2019 book “The Case Against Free Speech,” left-wing journalist P.D. Moskowitz argues that “free speech” has been co-opted by right-wing extremists, white supremacists and evil capitalists who use it to maintain their power and to silence minorities and other persecuted victims.

Mr. Moskowitz is hardly a progressive outlier in advancing the thesis that unregulated speech is a sword unsheathed by the entrenched bourgeois to beat back radicals challenging an “unjust” social order. The Hong Kong protesters using free expression to confront Chinese collectivism and authoritarianism might bitterly appreciate the irony, and perhaps this emerging leftist doctrine explains Mr. James’ concern that Mr. Morey’s opinion caused harm “emotionally, spiritually.”

The progressive commitment to liberty and free speech shrivels by the day. Is it any wonder, then, that a league which prides itself on standing for “social justice” offered such a craven and meek response in the face of Chinese bullying?

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