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.