Last week, the NFL issued a new policy banning kneeling for the national anthem on the field. The league allowed players the option of staying in the locker room, but it obviously believed that the spate of players kneeling for the anthem had created a significant backlash that could be felt in terms of ratings and tickets. Thus it changed the policy.
And all hell broke loose. Free-speech advocates on the libertarian right suggested that the NFL had committed a grave injustice, undermining our communal sense of free speech and signaling that social pressure to conformist patriotism trumped the value of dissent. Those on the left were upset that kneeling for the anthem was even seen as a negative — they sided with the kneelers.
Fast-forward a week.
Roseanne Barr, the nuttier-than-a-Christmas-fruitcake actress who plays the main character on the hit ABC show Roseanne, tweeted out a blatantly racist comment about former top Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, in which she made references to the Muslim Brotherhood and the film Planet of the Apes. ABC immediately responded by canceling her highly rated sitcom.
And many of the same people who ripped into the NFL for its new kneeling policy cheered ABC.
Now, let’s be clear: Kneeling for the anthem, on the scale of speech-related sins, ranks well below comparing a black American to an ape. Yes, of course Roseanne deserved the ax. But the real question is why some corporate speech-policing is considered decent while other corporate speech-policing is deemed deeply troubling. We have no rule of thumb for these things, and it’s obvious that the public is responding in ad hoc fashion to various iterations of the issue.
Should Mozilla Firefox defenestrate its head, Brendan Eich, for opposing same-sex marriage? Should Keith Olbermann be granted a new contract at ESPN despite his bevy of vile and offensive tweets? Should the talent agency ICM dump Roseanne but keep Trump-beheader Kathy Griffin? There’s no obvious answer in the offing from the usual suspects, other than political convenience: Backers of Griffin and Olbermann often want to see folks like Eich and Roseanne thrown off the air, and vice versa.
It’s not enough to say that corporations are private entities that can do what they please in response to speech — of course that’s true, but it’s also true that a culture of free speech can die via corporate boycotts and corporate crackdowns. So, what principle should we use when it comes to corporate speech-policing?
Here’s a simple proposition: Corporations and consumers should be given full leeway and support to present consequences for exercise of free speech that affects the product being offered. So, for example, it seems perfectly reasonable for ABC to conclude that Roseanne’s on-air image has been irreparably stained by her comments, or for the public to respond to her comments by refusing to watch her show. After all, Roseanne the character is inseparable from Roseanne the person. The show is named after her. She essentially plays a version of herself.
When it comes to the NFL, the same holds true. The NFL offers a product, largely produced for television. That product contains the playing of the national anthem and revolves around patriotic imagery. Kneeling for the anthem damages the presentation of that product.
The quest for decency can all too easily turn into a case for public compulsion.
Now, take some counterexamples. Let’s say that your plumber is someone who kneels for the anthem at baseball games. Let’s say he posts about it on his Facebook page. Would you be justified in initiating a boycott against his business? I would think not — plumbing has nothing to do with boycotting the anthem. And pushing that plumber’s employer to fire him seems counterproductive to speech concerns as well.
Or, let’s say that a company — Chick-Fil-A, for example — is owned by someone who favors traditional marriage. That has nothing to do with the operations of the company. That means boycotts would be inappropriate.
Free speech can be threatened in practice by a culture of mob rule — attempts to destroy someone’s life thanks to their viewpoint rather than their behavior. But sometimes speech is inherently related to the job or product at issue. Corporations have every right to protect their bottom line under such circumstances, and the public has every right to shy away from such products and services.
So, good riddance to Roseanne. And yes, the NFL has the right to change its anthem-kneeling policy. But let’s be careful how far we extend the backlash to speech. The quest for decency can all too easily turn into a case for public compulsion.
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