Last week, Disney fired Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn after the Daily Caller and others dug up a series of almost decade-old tweets. Make no mistake, the tweets are offensive, terrible, and gross. Gunn “jokes” about rape and pedophilia, among other topics, but there’s no indication that he’s guilty of committing any unlawful acts, there’s no indication that he continues to “joke” in the same manner, and by all accounts that I’ve read, he’s been a consummate professional while directing one of Marvel’s premiere film franchises. As anyone who reads me know, I err on the side of protecting individual expression and grow extremely tired of the online shame campaigns. So I tweeted this:
No. This is wrong. His old tweets were 100 percent offensive and gross, but this is not how we judge people. This is not how we determine the fate of a person’s career: https://t.co/U8hcO403Lw
— David French (@DavidAFrench) July 20, 2018
Soon afterwards, a number of folks on the populist, “fight fire with fire” right accused me of hypocrisy and seeking to curry favor with progressive elites. My sin? I didn’t support Roseanne Barr. Here’s a typical tweet:
But wait. There’s a significant difference between Barr and Gunn. Barr wasn’t fired for all her past outrages. She was fired when she tweeted a vile, racist insult while employed by ABC. It wasn’t a decade-old tweet. If I were a hypocrite, I’d have urged Disney to keep Gunn if he tweeted those same things yesterday. If I were a hypocrite, I’d have urged ABC to fire Roseanne for past misconduct while demanding that Disney rehire Gunn under the same circumstances. After all, Roseanne had a long, checkered history of outrageous insults (and outrageous conduct) when she was brought on to revive her hit show. But she got a chance to do things right.
To protect free expression and to end the tiresome hunts for bad tweets and silly hot takes, I’d suggest a few, commonsense principles should apply:
First, there is a difference between present and past speech. In other words, if I’m performing well and behaving professionally in my current job, then past offensive words shouldn’t be a firing offense. Employers are more than capable of explaining that they condemn words from the past while giving an employee a chance to excel in the present. When ABC brought Roseanne back, no one reasonably thought it was endorsing, for example, her past disrespect for the national anthem.
Second, when evaluating present-day speech, there is a difference between good faith and bad faith. As I outlined recently in the Washington Post, there is a big difference between employees who dissent from corporate policies or politics respectfully and those who are intentionally vile and malicious. James Damore’s manifesto represented a good-faith effort to change Google’s diversity’s policies. NFL football players knelt as part of a good-faith effort to first protest perceived police misconduct and second to protest President Trump’s attempted bullying. The public (and colleagues) should be able to tolerate the presence of differing views.
Roseanne’s tweet, by contrast, was vile and malicious. She was hired in spite of her long past and then engaged in conduct that conformed to that past. It indicated instability — that ABC couldn’t trust her to behave with a modicum of decency.
Third, when in doubt, err on the side of protecting freedom of expression. Reasonable minds can differ on the offensiveness of any given tweet or post. Moreover, there is a difference between an impulsive mistake and a pattern of conduct. Read words charitably, if at all possible.
Fourth, apply these principles equally — regardless of ideology. “Free speech for me but not for thee” results only in tribal warfare.
Finally, people should have a chance to change. If a network executive wants to give Roseanne another chance, good luck. Disney should rehire James Gunn. We’re rapidly reaching a point where we’re telling our most creative and interesting people that they can never, ever speak outside the lines — and the lines often shift by the year (or the month.) This is exactly the recipe for cultural stagnation and endless, miserable cultural conflict.
Even in the private, corporate context, let’s give people room to speak, to challenge orthodoxy, and to provoke. Let’s relax about words and grow more vigilant in the defense of our essential liberties. After all, free speech isn’t just a legal doctrine, it’s a vital cultural value. Lose it now, and we may well change our nation forever.