Rarely does the genteel card game of bridge merit both a news story on the front page of the arts section and an editorial in The New York Times, but that’s what happened recently during a raging controversy over free expression.

Here are the bones of it. A seven-member team of American women, winners of the Venice Cup, displayed a sign reading, “We did not vote for Bush” at an awards presentation concluding the recent world bridge championships in Shanghai. Did they act inappropriately? Many Americans will argue that people representing their country shouldn’t use the occasion to blast its leader. On the other hand, foreign players were hammering Americans about the war in Iraq and torture, and they may have felt compelled to respond.

Some players sent e-mails accusing the Shanghai Seven of treason and sedition, which according to the Department of Justice “carries a range of penalties from a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in jail to a maximum sentence of the death penalty.”

Three of the seven players apologized for the sign. The United States Bridge Federation, which selects players for international competition, proposed penalizing the other four with a one-year suspension from play followed by a one-year probation and 200 hours of community service unless they too expressed regrets and disclosed whose idea the sign was. The USBF commissioned a panel that was supposed to conduct a hearing over the matter on Nov. 29 at the Fall Nationals, an American Contract Bridge League tournament, in San Francisco.

“This isn’t a free-speech issue,” USBF president Jan Martel told The New York Times, adding that the display could cost the federation its corporate sponsors. “There isn’t any question that private organizations can control the speech of people who represent them.”

Player, teacher and columnist Danny Kleiman disagreed. “If the USBF wants to impose conditions of membership that involve curtailment of free speech, then it cannot claim to represent our country in international competition,” he e-mailed The New York Times. The editorial agreed, and the French team also supported the American players.

Legally, the federation may have been within its rights, since the First Amendment, with some exceptions, only protects individuals from abuse by the government. Rule IV.A.10 of the USBF’s Grievance, Appeals and Disciplinary Procedures proscribes “actions unbecoming a member of the USBF . . . including, but not limited to, improper actions at the time and site of a tournament.”

However, as five prominent players stated in a letter to the USBF board, “What precisely does this mean, even if we narrow the inquiry to personal expression? Does this rule prohibit all forms of personal expression or only written expression? Does this rule prohibit all statements wherever made or only statements made on the victorypodium?  Does it prohibit all statements — political, religious, civic and commercial — or only political statements or only political statements that are anti-American? And, perhaps most importantly, who decides what is ‘political’ and/or ‘un-American’? Is a sign that says World Peace political and un-American because it arguably and implicitly condemns the Iraq War? The fact that so many people — USBF members, other bridge players, and regular people — have such strong feelings, pro and con, as to whether the Shanghai Seven’s conduct was unbecoming underscores the fact that the current rules and regulations of the USBF are too ambiguous a standard to support the sanctions sought by the USBF Board against the Shanghai Seven.”

Why did the incident stoke such fiery passions in the first place? As one of the letter signers, Marty Fleisher says, “It wasn’t as if they held up a sign reading, George W. Bush is a war criminal.”

The case recalled the embarrassing example of the Baseball Hall of Fame rescinding an invitation to Bull Durham stars Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon because of their leftist political views. And while we’re discussing national pastimes, should the Red Sox have sanctioned Curt Schilling because he inappropriately campaigned for President Bush’s re-election in the clubhouse while his teammates celebrated Boston’s first World Championship in 86 years? But back to bridge. A simple tut-tut would have sufficed for the USBF. Instead, it stood accused of unAmerican censorship.

The story has a happy ending. On its Nov. 20 Web page, the USBF announced a joint settlement with the Shanghai Seven. The federation dismissed all charges, and the Venice Cup winners agreed to accept their medals without staging political protests in the future. Isn’t it nice when sanity prevails in public life?

Jim Kaplan is the Gazette bridge columnist and author of the weekly newsletter Bridge in the 21st Century.