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Published: Saturday, 12/1/2007

Free the Shanghai chicks

A MINOR political protest at, of all places, the world bridge championships in China, has stirred up another unwarranted brouhaha reminiscent of the Dixie Chicks flap four years ago.

This time, the incident involved not an entertainer speaking her mind between songs at a country music concert but a team of seven American bridge professionals who, at an awards dinner in Shanghai, held up a hastily scrawled sign that read, "We did not vote for Bush."

Apparently, the women had encountered considerable opposition to President Bush and U.S. foreign policy while they were abroad and decided, in a spur-of-the-moment gesture, to let their international peers know not to blame them.

In response, the women were besieged by angry e-mails accusing them of treason and sedition, along with the threat of loss of income during a proposed year-long suspension from their sanctioning group, the United States Bridge Federation.

Jan Martel, federation president, claims that free speech isn't at issue, that the group, as a private organization, has the power to "control the speech of people who represent them."

But Mr. Martel misses the point. He cannot escape the irony of a group from the United States, the land of the free, punishing fellow Americans for a harmless message on a sign. That the alleged "offense" took place in communist China, where free speech can land you in jail, only further weakens his untenable position.

The righteous side of this dispute was expressed by Danny Kleinman, a professional bridge player, teacher, and columnist. He argued that "if the [bridge federation] wants to impose conditions of membership that involve curtailment of free speech, then it cannot claim to represent our country in international competition."

The Americans also have support from the French bridge team, which wrote, "By trying to address these issues in a nonviolent, nonthreatening, and lighthearted manner, you were doing only what women of the world have always tried to do when opposing the folly of men who have lost their perspective of reality."

The card team, dubbed the "Dixie Chicks of Bridge" by some, should not be punished and, moreover, should have no regrets for expressing differences with their political leadership.

How could that ever be considered un-American?

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