Employers routinely penalize employees for public speech that might damage the firm’s reputation. Anyone who is careless in public statements is unsuited for public-facing jobs. Weaving comedy into a hateful or racist remark does not make it inoffensive.
Recently a public relations executive for InterActiveCorp tweeted a racist quip about the probability of contracting AIDS on her African trip. IAC fired her before the airplane landed in Africa. Her quick apology could not quell the social media feeding frenzy, and her Twitter and Facebook accounts were promptly discontinued.
In 2010, Juan Williams said he felt uncomfortable boarding a plane with passengers whose garb “identifies them first and foremost as Muslims.” NPR ran with scissors to remove him from the payroll, and sacrificed a vice president in the process. But Juan Williams’ popularity and skills landed him an arguably better job at Fox News.
Phil Robertson, Duck Dynasty patriarch, coarsely voiced disdain for gay lifestyles. A&E immediately announced that his remarks violated their “core values” and that he would be excluded from the next season’s production run of Duck Dynasty. But within a week, pressure from Duck supporters forced A&E to rescind that “suspension.“ Core values aside, A&E’s Keystone Cops imitation has been a promotional bonanza for A&E.
MSNBC has been a Vesuvius for vile, racist and hate speech by on-air “personalities.” Martin Bashir showed off his leftwing credentials by wishing a vile act on Sarah Palin. It took a long time after his apology for Martin and MSNBC to part company. In contrast, Alec Baldwin was fired almost immediately by MSNBC for his homophobic remarks in November 2013. Then a panel of MSNBC’s on-air personalities (Melissa Harris-Perry, Pia Glenn and Dean Obeidallah) ganged up to score political and comedy points by references to a black grandson in the Romney family’s Christmas card. So far only Harris-Perry has offered a contorted apology. It’s possible to have too much personality.
The private sector reacts quickly to its assessment of public relations damage, and it can overreact or underreact. Foot-in-mouth employees have little say in the outcome.
On the other hand, government action is mindful of freedom of speech and is slower and more cautious in handling employees who voice racist and hateful remarks. Freedom of speech is sometimes trumped by gagging those who would reveal state secrets or by silencing those whowould undermine public confidence in the judiciary’s impartiality.
American consumers are aware of university professors’ leftward tilt, especially in the infamous “studies” curricula and sociology departments where, liberal bias captures 90% or more of professors. The bias could be irrelevant if it were not a strong factor in what is taught in the classroom or how students are graded.
Tenure has gulled some professors into believing they have protection equivalent to diplomatic immunity – they can say whatever they want if they pretend it’s important to their academic freedom. Indeed, there are few instances where universities have moved against professors for their public statements.
One exception is the case of Ward Churchill, a professor who criticized victims of the World Trade Center attack in 2001. The University of Colorado at Boulder fired him. In a court case about his first amendment rights to say whatever he wanted, a jury awarded him $1 in damages, but the US Supreme Court upheld the Colorado Supreme Court ruling that “the university has the right and obligation to ensure high professional standards from its faculty” and was right to fire him.
In a surprising elevation of the state university’s stature, the state Supreme Court said the University of Colorado’s action in firing Churchill was a “”quasi-judicial action,” meaning it was equivalent to a judicial process,” and that gave the university quasi-judicial immunity and the right to meddle with first amendment rights.
Recently, in irony-laced politics, the American Studies Association endorsed a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. These proponents of academic freedom want it suppressed in Israel. Of course the boycott is a byproduct of the Palestinian perspective in the Israeli-Palestinian battle. Many American universities have denounced the boycott, but evidently none have punished their professors who support the boycott.
Finally, the unexploded bomb — the Board of Regents for Kansas universities and community colleges, gave each school’s CEO the “discretion to discipline or terminate any faculty or staff member who uses social media “improperly.” It is unclear what Tweet or Facebook post dangers keep them awake at night, but this warning could become an attack on academic freedom and first amendment rights. It is predictable that some gutsy professor or free-speech advocates will call Kansas’ bluff in court. Perhaps Kansas had more legal expenses budgeted than it knew how to spend.
Alan Daley writes for the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research