Do We Have Free Speech?

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I dislike mentioning the First Amendment when controversies like the Phil Robertson versus A&E brewhaha break out. After all, the First Amendment applies only to Congress (and the Supreme Court has ruled [incorrectly, if you ask me] that it applies to state governments via the 14th Amendment), and the actions of a cable network don’t really implicate the First Amendment. On the other hand, Ace of Spades makes a fairly compelling argument that this is too narrow an interpretation of what the First Amendment is all about.

It’s also untrue. Yes, the First Amendment, strictly speaking, applies only to the government. But there is a spirit of the First Amendment too, not just a restriction on government action.

 

And that spirit is this:

 

That we should have, to the extent compatible with ordered liberty, the maximum possible right to think and say and believe what we choose, and anyone who attempts to use force to coerce someone to think and say and believe something that is alien to them is acting contrary to the spirt of the First Amendment.

 

I’ve said this a dozen times:

 

The real, tangible threat to our right to think and speak as we will, as conscience, faith, or reason (or all three together) might impel us, is not from the government, but from our employers, and from the massively corporate media institutions that impose real penalties on people — fines, really, imposed by firings, suspensions, mandatory Thought Rehab and so forth — for daring to utter words other than the Officially Approved Institutional Corporate Slogans.

 

Yes, A&E has the right to suspend Phil Robinson. A&E also has the right to stand up for a broad and generous principle of Freedom of Thought and Expression.

 

Why does no one speak of that right? Sure, they have the right to act hostilely towards the spirit of the First Amendment and use coercive power to hammer people into only speaking the Officially Approved Institutional Corporate Slogans.

As I said, this is a very compelling argument, though I’m not sure I completely buy into it. In the case of employers firing people for expressing their free speech rights, true government coercion, it could be argued, would be actively prohibiting employers from firing employees for expressing unpopular opinions. Now, I personally think employers should give their employees wide latitude when it comes to expressing their opinions, and there are few examples I can think of where it would be acceptable to fire people for their political opinions.*

Which leads me to one of the most outrageous examples of over-reaction I’ve ever seen. Justine Sacco was a communications director for a firm called IAC – I say was because she was fired after tweeting the following:

Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!

The tweet was obviously a (really bad) attempt at mocking the concept of white privilege. It did not sit well with many of the purveyors of decency on the left, and within hours there was a social media firestorm. This woman with barely over 100 followers had become the locus of hate throughout the twitterverse, and soon her employers were compelled first to issue a statement of regret, and then to sack Sacco (sorry).

What was particularly heinous about the incident was how it revealed the true ugliness of social media, and I’m not referring to Sacco’s tweet. Her tweet was dumb, but clearly an example of poor humor and not racism or maliciousness. Yet this woman was hounded by the likes of Buzzfeed and other media outlets, and her tweet drew far, far, far more attention than it really merited. Like a pack of ravenous wolves, they descended on the metaphoric body of the tweet and made sure that not even a bone was left on the carcass. And why? Because of a really bad joke.

Now Sacco certainly deserves some share of the blame. After all, she was a communications director, and as such should have known better. And there’s something to be said about taking a more careful approach with social media. But are we really comfortable with getting a woman fired for a poor joke? Was her company’s bottom line really imperiled by Sacco’s crack? And of the millions of dumb tweets sent every day, why was hers one that merited such attention?

Sacco’s firing troubles me much more than Robertson’s suspension, which is not to say I wasn’t troubled by the latter. Robertson is a public figure, and he’ll be okay in the end. On the other hand, Sacco was fired because she tweeted something that offended certain people’s sensibilities. It had no bearing on her actual work with IAC, and it’s doubtful that her company’s reputation would have been damaged had they retained her. The social media pack mentality also does not speak well for our society as how many individuals mindlessly joined the herd without giving a second thought to what they were doing?

Most importantly I am just concerned about where we are headed culturally when we can’t make a public utterance without fearing the loss of our livelihoods. As Dale Price said, “If you say you believe in free speech but are routinely demanding “consequences” for speech you disagree with…you really don’t believe in free speech.” Sure we should be responsible for what we utter in public, but we need to have some perspective. I do not want to live in a country where it is acceptable to be easily fired for the flimsiest of comments.

For example, if the Chief of Public Relations for the Democratic National Committee suddenly took to twitter to rip into Harry Reid and Barack Obama, then it would most certainly not be inappropriate for the DNC to take action against that person. More seriously, I’m also thinking of teachers at Catholic schools who publicly dissent against Church teaching.

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19 Comments

  1. “The real, tangible threat to our right to think and speak as we will, as conscience, faith, or reason (or all three together) might impel us, is not from the government, but from our employers, and from the massively corporate media institutions that impose real penalties on people — fines, really, imposed by firings, suspensions, mandatory Thought Rehab and so forth — for daring to utter words other than the Officially Approved Institutional Corporate Slogans.”

    Bingo. One of many reasons I am glad that I have been self-employed for 28 years and counting.

  2. Before he retired, my dad worked for a large local pharmaceutical company whose name would be immediately recognizable. That company, back then, modeled its behavioral codes after IBMs – pressed suit, black tie & shoes and the whole nine yards. He often told me about making sure that I was always aware of my environment, and that “propriety and prudence were a businessman’s best friends.”

    When I didn’t listen and shot my mouth off anyway, he’d be a bit more direct: “Just because you think you have the right to say something, it doesn’t mean you have to be a dumbass about it.”

    This advice, in either form, seems to be a lost art anymore. Shame.

  3. “Just because you think you have the right to say something, it doesn’t mean you have to be a dumbass about it.”
    I would rather be a dumbass about it than let the villainy of tyrants echo through the silence. At first, I thought to write and I ought to have written: I would rather be a dumbass about it than let other dumbasses impose their tyranny on my posterity. Someone once told me that I have to have something to say. Shh, quiet, I am thinking.

    Before I comment on this post I am thinking that the First Amendment is supported by our Founding Fathers, all of them, who signed out Founding Principles and if E Pluribus Unum means anything, it means that any decision coming out of the Supreme Court must apply to all persons, living and dead, equally. When the atheist went to the Court, her opinion that God does not exist was never substantiated with testimony and or evidence. On the contrary, her existence and God as existence contradicted her plaint. If Congress, who is the voice of all of the citizens, each and every citizen, is prohibited by the First Amendment to hinder “…or prohibit the free exercise thereof” of any citizen in relationship to God and free speech is, first and foremost, speaking with and to and for God, then the First Amendment protects evangelization, proselytism, or speaking any truth. Only truth and nothing but the truth has freedom of speech.
    At will employment gives the employer the right to terminate any employee for any reason. The employee would have to prove through a preponderance of credible evidence that a crime of discrimination was indeed committed.This means the employee would have to know the mind of his employer. A paper trail of the employer’s violation of the civil rights of all people, all citizens, by turning out inuendos, insinuations, scandals, seductions, half-truths, proliferation of violations of virginity and innocence of our constitutional posterity and other immorality, the preponderance of credible evidence will tip the scales of Justice against him. On the other hand, the employer did not warn or post his statement of intent for such terminations, leaving the victim unawares and uninformed. It is possible that Phil Robertson spoke out to balance the falsehoods of the employer, being called upon by the virtual indecency put forth.

  4. Dale Price said, ”If you say you believe in free speech but are routinely demanding “consequences” for speech you disagree with…you really don’t believe in free speech.”
    The consequences for speech you disagree with is your disagreement. Piling on the government, politically correct culture and termination, etc., is nuking a gnat. Fair is fair and bullies are bullies.
    The Chinaman came before a judge and asked for payment from a homeless man because the man came to smell his wonderful food. The judge asked the homeless man if he had any money. The man said he had a few coins. The judge asked the man to produce the coins. The merchant thought he was going to be paid for the wonderful smell of his food. The judge then asked the homeless man to raise the coins in one hand and let the coins drop to his other hand, thereby producing a clinking sound. The judge then said: “For the smell of wonderful food, you get the sound of money.”
    A&E has spit at a tsunami. Phil Robertson is owed an increase in pay for ameliorating and for being forced to ameliorate the evil spewed by A&E.

  5. I agree with Donald and will add that what he quoted from the blog correctly describes Commercial Nuclear Energy in a nutshell in these United States (as well as a whole mess of other corporations):

    “The real, tangible threat to our right to think and speak as we will, as conscience, faith, or reason (or all three together) might impel us, is not from the government, but from our employers, and from the massively corporate media institutions that impose real penalties on people — fines, really, imposed by firings, suspensions, mandatory Thought Rehab and so forth — for daring to utter words other than the Officially Approved Institutional Corporate Slogans.”

  6. No, we don’t have free speech. This hasn’t been a free country in a long time. We are like a zombie. It looks alive because it’s still walking but if you get up close and get a good whiff you see that this thing has been dead.

  7. The best way to evangelize our Faith is to proclain the “Good News” without any reservations and show our love for all the Gospel has to offer everybody. Verbal finger pointing won’t help in the le ast. People want to learn more about us than what we’re just against. What do we have to offer?

  8. Steven, that’s a remarkable insight. Just think of what we can demonstrate by our lives. We can say just as much with deeds as we can with words. In fact the old adage has it that actions speak louder than words. I’ve been of the oopinion that people generally know what’s wrong. They knwo it at some level, but they suppress it. Who doesn’t know in America that Christ died for them? Perhaps they need to hear it form someone caring. More importantly, perhaps, they need to see the results of that–to be touched by it. It is love that moved us (Dante). It is love that will move them.

  9. I recall a similar case of an executive for a corporation acting like a jerk and
    paying a stiff price for it– only the consensus here was that we were glad to
    see him gone. I refer to the man who berated the nice lady at the Chick-fil-a
    drive-through and broadcast his idiocy on YouTube. American Catholic had
    a post about it– “Jerkiness Cometh Before A Fall”, back in August of 2012.

    I’m not suggesting that what Mr. Smith did back then was defensible. He was
    a bully and a jerk to that nice lady, and keeping him on would have made the
    company where he was CFO look like it condoned his behavior– and, incidentally,
    would have called into question that company’s entire culture of professionalism.

    He was canned. We were glad to hear of it. I don’t think anyone here suggested
    that he should have been able to speak as he did without any consequences from
    his employer.

    What makes Ms. Sacco’s case so different from that of Mr. Smith? I am most
    emphatically not defending Mr. Smith’s behavior– I think firing him was
    the right thing for his company to do. The man’s behavior was egregious.

    I suppose the troubling thing is that our definition of egregious behavior seems
    to be shifting.

  10. What makes Ms. Sacco’s case so different from that of Mr. Smith?

    Really? You don’t see a difference between publicly berating people and making a bad joke on twitter? Really?

  11. *sigh*.

    Mr. Zummo, I would point out that it is Ms. Sacco’s employer who doesn’t see
    the difference between Mr. Smith’s egregious behavior and that of Ms. Sacco.
    In the end, they received the same penalty for their mistakes. Really.

    Would I have fired him? Oh, yes. With pleasure. Ms. Sacco? I’m not so sure.
    I must admit that for a communications director to publicly broadcast
    her monumental tactlessness– one must question her competence in her field.

    As I said before, what constitutes ‘egregious’ behavior seems to have changed
    rather recently, at least in the circles that hire and fire executives. Most companies
    hire executives like CFOs and communications directors with the contractual
    understanding that the executive represents the company 24 hours a day, and
    that anything done that might bring the company into disrepute could well be
    an offense that rates termination. So yeah, by taking that contract, I suppose
    an executive agrees to a limitation of his or her First Amendment rights.

    Mr. Zummo’s snark aside, these days there’s probably no difference between
    publicly berating people and making bad jokes on twitter, at least to the
    mandarins in charge of guarding a company’s PR. When I asked what the
    could be between the two cases, it was a rhetorical question. I fear that, these
    days, for the increasingly gun-shy HR departments out there it is not rhetorical
    at all. Why is that?

  12. “So yeah, by taking that contract, I suppose an executive agrees to a limitation of his or her First Amendment rights.”
    It is a violation of Free Speech and First Amendment rights to abuse people in speech. The First Amendment in any contract demands charity. Prayer for Divine Providence is a good beginning.

  13. Phil Robertson was uplifting people. A&E was demeaning Robertson, totally against the First Amendment. The issue is that A&E presumes their clientele to be so numbnuts that we would not notice. WE noticed.

  14. Here’s one for those who are afraid of making their mark on this secular society:
    “I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either
    cold or hot. So, BECAUSE YOU ARE LUKEWARM, neither hot nor cold, I will SPIT you out of my mouth ” (Revelation 3:15-16.
    and Jesus also said, “If you are ashamed of me before man, I will be ashamed of you.

  15. Interesting question in the last sentence of the article.
    What to do about Catholic school teachers who publicly dissent at the Church’s teachings?
    I am ok with firing the teacher.
    However, it seems to me that Robertson and Sacco are being mistreated.
    Am I a hypocrite?

  16. Thank you Jonathan. Well, the biggest “Dynasty Soapie” since the days of JR & his dynasty in Dallas are no longer history, but were given a new lease on life. (So was the rump remains of the old Roman Empire under the good graces of Justinian and Theodosia, one of western history’s first “power couples.” How long did the rump limp on for after the power couple left the scene? Relatively speaking … perhaps as long as the Robertsons may the moment A & E gets a newer exec who’s given “broad discretion” when it comes to handling the “patriarch’s” next indiscretion. Safe to say who’ll come out ahead in the next episode. Stay tuned.

    Perhaps a visit or two to our local cemeteries or even a large state/regional Federal military cemetery might serve as a “cooling off antidote.” Not far from where I live there’s a couple of humble grave markers of two survivors of the MA 54th Regmt. memorialized in the film “Glory.” I don’t think anybody would dare to compare the freedoms and free speech they fought for on the same plane as that argued for by Duck Dynasty’s fans.

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