Recent events in sports and entertainment offer invaluable lessons in freedom of speech.
Last week the NFL decreed that football players may no longer kneel during the playing of the national anthem. They must either respectfully stand during its playing, or remain off the field and in their locker rooms until their games’ opening ceremonies are concluded.
Also, last week, the ABC Television Network fired Roseanne Barr, the star of one of its most highly rated programs, after she tweeted a joke saying Valerie Barrett, former President Obama’s longtime friend and policy adviser, was a cross between a Muslim and an Ape.
But TBS has declined to discipline “comedienne” Samantha Bee for calling Ivanka Trump the c-word and implying the existence of an incestuous relationship between her and her father.
So what’s going on?
In a nutshell—the exercise of free speech and its limits.
When the NFL players, inspired by the example of Colin Kaepernick, first began kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, they met heavy resistance from football fans and the more conservative elements in politics and the media. Yet the players were well within their rights to peacefully advance their cause—the alleged need for more “social justice” in America—in accordance with the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech—from oppression by the government.
Yet the NFL and the football team owners have First Amendment rights too. They’re under no obligation to let their employees demonstrate while “on the clock” and on their property (football stadiums), especially if the players are broadcasting messages of which the NFL disapproves or which are costing the NFL and the team owners money (apparently there’s been a drop off in viewership and revenues for the teams). So while no government has the right to shut the players up, their employers have every right to do so while the players are doing their job—playing football—on the property of their employers, and taking their employers’ paychecks. Of course, the players are perfectly free to keep demonstrating peacefully on their own time, on their own dime, as long as they don’t violate their voluntarily accepted contractual obligations.
The Roseanne Barr case is identical. She has a perfect right to tell whatever jokes she chooses about public figures without fear of government oppression. But her employer, ABC, has the right to demand that she adhere to its standards as a condition for further employment. ABC was well within its rights to fire her and end her show for failing to do so.
In short, the First Amendment protects people’s freedom of speech from government interference, but not from that of their employers. Hence, Slim Fast, which makes diet supplements, had the right to fire Whoopi Goldberg, its commercial pitchwoman, after she performed a comedy routine comparing part of her anatomy to President Obama’s White House predecessor. And whatever one thinks of Rush Limbaugh, ESPN had the right to fire Rush Limbaugh from its team of sports commentators after he suggested that a starting quarterback may have earned his status because of his race (whether Limbaugh was right or wrong was irrelevant—he said something ESPN didn’t want him to say, and that was curtains for him as a sportscaster).
Of course, the fact that private entertainment corporations have the right to limit their employees’ freedom of speech doesn’t mean they’ll always do it. Samantha Bee’s employer, TBS, shows, as of this writing, no sign that it plans to discipline her for calling Ivanka Trump the c-word. And MSNBC likewise shows no intention of firing or disciplining commentator Joy Reid for her record of homophobic and “truther” remarks (truthers deny that Osama Bin Laden took out World Trade Center, arguing that its destruction was the work of our government, or the Israeli government, or both in collusion). And whatever one thinks of the decisions of TBS and MSNBC, the networks’ have the right, under the First Amendment, to not discipline their employees for speech, no matter how irrational or hateful that speech might be.
But their decisions to give Bee and Reid free passes on this issue don’t mean that We the People can’t call them out on their choices to do so. There’s no reason, for example, why We the People can’t ask why it’s wrong to call Valerie Jarrett an ape but okay to call President Trump a baboon, as news and sports commentator Keith Olbermann recently did, without losing his job? After all, We the People have the right the speak out too. The First Amendment says so.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.