Warning: This is a commentary, not a piece of fiction. If you came here for the fiction, this brief essay may not be for you.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Roseanne Barr major twitter gaffe that got her show cancelled, the whole Colin Kaepernick “taking the knee” protests, and how ABC and the NFL have respectively responded to them, all in terms of Free Speech Rights.
First let’s get something out of the way. What’s the short definition of Free Speech Rights? According to Wikipedia, it is:
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution declares, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
It’s actually a lot more complicated and nuanced than that, but let’s roll with what I’ve just quoted.
Free Speech Rights only apply relative to government restrictions on a person’s speech. It has nothing to do with how your employer reacts to your acts of self-expression. In other words, ABC was not restricting Ms. Barr’s rights when they fired her after her tweet about Valerie Jarrett. True, they didn’t have to fire her and cancel her show, but the ABC execs were probably worried about a major PR problem if they let it slide. And let’s face it, we all say stupid stuff sometimes and nobody dies because of it.
But it’s not the first time something like this has happened. Back in October of last year, CBS fired former company Vice President Hayley Geftman-Gold for posting on her personal Facebook account how she condoned the mass shooting deaths of country and western music fans who were killed while attending a Las Vegas concert. In part, she said, “I’m actually not even sympathetic bc [sic] country music fans often are Republican gun toters [sic].” I even wrote about it myself.
Was Barr’s single racist comment on the same level of offense as Geftman-Gold’s statement condoning murder as long as it happens to “gun toting” Republicans? I suppose that depends on your point of view. There are probably people who think ABC overreacted in firing Barr, and others who believe CBS overreacted by firing Geftman-Gold.
However both ABC and CBS were within their rights to terminate the employment of Barr and Geftman-Gold respectively, regardless of whether or not we think it was unfair.
According to Sporting News online magazine, Colin Kaepernick’s attorney Mark Geragos believes that NFL owners are colluding with the Trump administration to shut Kaepernick out of the NFL, presumably because they object to his activism, particularly at the beginning of football games.
If ABC and CBS have the right to decide to fire or not fire employees based on their public behavior, even when they’re off the clock, I suppose football team owners have the right to fire or not fire employees for their public behavior off or on the clock.
Really, it’s the same thing. Sure, based on our personal views, we probably tend to favor certain people and institutions more than others, but putting all that aside for a moment, objectively and dispassionately, employers have the right to discharge employees as long as their rights haven’t been violated (Employment Law is a vast territory of which I am largely unfamiliar, but yes, it is possible for a person to be a victim of wrongful termination).
In considering all of this, I looked at a Jewish view of Barr’s tweet and subsequent firing (yes, there’s more than one Jewish view) which can be summed up as “Words matter,” “Jokes can hurt,” and “We can’t take back our words,” the last one being especially true on the internet where everything we post lives forever.
Barr blamed her tweet on her being under the influence of an over-the-counter sleeping medication. This is the moral equivalent of a “drunken tweet,” and if we can say stupid stuff sober, it gets worse when we are under the influence and our inhibitions are lowered. The take away here is to stay off social media when your judgment is impaired (which for some people is probably all the time, but I digress).
As I alluded to above, not everything thinks Barr’s firing is right or fair. USA Today posted a list of people who have supported Barr on twitter. They generally cite ABC’s hypocracy in specific, but also make similar statements about the news and entertainment industries in general.
Where does all this leave me as an individual who wants to fair and do the right thing? I posted my personal comments on my own Facebook account:
Historically, African-American people have been caricatured as animals and thus a lesser species than (white) humans, so Roseanne’s “Planet of the Apes” comment relative to a person of color, regardless of her intent, does come across as racist. The issue doesn’t reverse, so Bill Maher’s comment claiming Trump’s Mom had sex with an orangutan isn’t considered racist, just insulting.
The issue isn’t limited to African-Americans. Think about how in World War Two, for instance, American propaganda posters rendered the Japanese as buck-toothed with brilliant yellow skin, or how Jews have been depicted with huge noses and associated with greed. All kinds of racist and bigoted caricatures exist.
Yeah, it was the wrong thing for Roseanne to say. As far as the NFL and kneeling football players vs. ABC and Roseanne, an employer can choose what response they make to the behavior of their employees, so whether or not we agree, ABC had the right to fire Roseanne and the NFL can choose not to sanction players who kneel in front of the American flag.
Before the internet and particularly before social media which includes blogging, for most people, if we said stupid stuff, it was limited to a few people, probably friends and family and maybe the occasional “Letter to the Editor” (assuming the newspaper chose to print it). Only if you were a celebrity like Roseanne Barr would your words gain a wider audience, but even then, you had to say it during a news interview or on television or radio.
In every case I’ve mentioned except Kaepernick’s, the comments they made were generated on their own time and on their private social media accounts. These people were acting as private citizens, not public figures. It doesn’t matter. The internet gives even the most anonymous of us (like me) a much wider audience than we would have merited a generation ago, and anyone can come across anything we put online if they just happen to enter the right search string on Google.
People sometimes fall victim to the unforeseen consequences of what they consider to be private or innocent actions. Barr says she’s not a racist, just stupid. Be that as it may, she didn’t look ahead at how her employer would react before making her ill-considered tweet, and now she’s unemployed.
The moral of the story is if something like this happens to you, before blaming anyone else, take a good hard look in the mirror. Maybe your worst enemy is the person you see in your reflection.