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Roseanne’s Cancellation Is Not About the First Amendment
Roseanne Barr sent a racist tweet Tuesday morning attacking a former Obama administration official. In response, ABC canceled her eponymous show. This did not happen overly hastily: Barr sent the tweet at 2:45 a.m., and the network did not take action for close to 12 hours. In the meantime, her lead writer and others quit, and a groundswell grew.
Still, the reasoning provided by network executives was completely unambiguous:
From Channing Dungey, President of ABC Entertainment: “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.”There was only one thing to do here, and that was the right thing.
— Robert Iger (@RobertIger) May 29, 2018
The reaction from reasonable people was that a network TV star had just compared an African-American person to an ape—actual textbook racism—and offered an insane conspiracy theory about her religious affiliations to boot. That is grounds for dismissal at most companies, particularly those with the kind of public profile of a major network. Plus, this was also not Barr’s first foray into blatant public racism directed at former government officials:
The real question is why ABC hired Barr, knowing her history, rather than why she was fired. (The answer is they thought it was worth a buck or two.) Still, there were some—particularly on Fox News—who immediately reacted by suggesting Barr’s free speech and/or First Amendment rights had been infringed upon. As our own Matt Miller observed:
“I don’t understand it to be anything other than free speech,” Faulkner said. “It is extremely offensive but it is just that. So she says in one of her tweets, there were three rapid fire today, it was a joke. It was a miscalculated joke.”
Even if it was a joke, ABC has every right to fire an employee for this conduct because it’s a private enterprise—though it’s owned by Disney, which is publicly traded. The First Amendment applies to government attempts to curtail speech: the government cannot jail you for your speech, but your company can fire you for saying racist things. Imagine you stood up in your office and yelled what Barr tweeted. You would certainly get reprimanded, and would probably get fired.
“Free speech” does not mean you get to say anything without any repercussions in society. The government cannot impose penalties on you, but your peers can by maintaining social norms that make it socially unacceptable—shameful, even—to behave in that way. You can’t lose your liberty, but you can lose your friends and your livelihood. The Constitution doesn’t protect your popularity.
You may recognize this argument because many of the same people who now say Barr was just exercising her free speech rights are singing a different tune when they see (primarily black and brown) NFL players protesting during the national anthem. As employees of the league, critics say, these men can be punished (or, in the cases of Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid, can be blackballed by all 32 teams) for expressing themselves in a way that could hurt their company’s reputation with fans or the bottom line.
“Free speech” does not mean you get to say anything without any repercussions in society.
In truth, the argument applies in both cases: ABC and the NFL can both fire employees for their speech if they think it’s alienating customers. The only difference is that ABC fired someone for free speech that was racist. NFL players are protesting racial injustice in policing and the criminal justice system, but their opponents suggest they are disrespecting The Flag or The Anthem or the armed forces. This is factually untrue, and the difference between the two cases is moral: Those offended by Roseanne Barr’s comments are offended by racism. Those offended by Colin Kaepernick’s silent kneeling have ascribed it a meaning that ignores—and often contradicts—his clearly expressed intention. The repercussions imposed on him are unjust.
For some, “free speech” seems to mean that certain people get to say anything with impunity, while other people should shut up and dribble. (Also, you might have noticed that whether something was a “joke” didn’t matter to Fox News when it came to Michelle Wolf.) There should be consequences for hateful or racist rhetoric, it’s just it’s the job of private citizens—and companies—to enforce them in the right ways and at the right times. That used to be called having some common decency and moral judgment.
Speaking of, there was once a scandal involving Barr and the national anthem all at once! Back in 1990, the comedian completely butchered the big song before a Padres game, kicking off a firestorm:
Here’s The Washington Post‘s account of various reactions:
President George Bush, on Air Force One, slammed her performance as “disgraceful.” George Will called her a “slob” and referenced her misdeed along with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Keith Olbermann, then a local reporter in full Revenge of the Nerds regalia, offered an on-air editorial complete with cheap chubby jokes. Arnold organized a mess of a press conference. Barr eventually had to issue a public apology.“I went to school the next day,” says Jake. “I got to hear that my mother hates America and ‘I hope she dies.’ She was really distraught. She wouldn’t leave the house.”
Wow, it sounds like people made a really big deal about this song! History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does seem to rhyme in the strangest ways.