By the way — Hi, regular readers! Assuming any of you are still left. Sorry I haven’t posted in so long. I took a new job, and for a while I was commuting 90 minutes each way. I really didn’t have time to do much posting.
I don’t want to tell you where I work, for reasons that will become apparent. Suffice it to say that it’s a media-related job with a sizable corporation. I like it. I’m happy with my employers and my co-workers.
But I wasn’t happy about one stipulation that I had to agree to when I took the job. It stated, effectively, that I was barred from public communication outside the job. No books. No blogs. In light of the fact that this was a week before my book was scheduled to be released, I was less than pleased.
One of my supervisors confirmed what I suspected. The company didn’t intend to vigorously enforce this provision. It was just in place so they’d be covered in case I should decide to start a blog devoted entirely to trashing my employer. Or something outrageous that might hurt our public image, such as white supremacist propaganda.
I guess that sort of “no public controversy clause” is increasingly common. But is it right?
I started considering that when I read about Phil Robertson, the guy who got fired from the hit A&E reality series “Duck Dynasty” over his homophobic remarks in an interview with GQ.
I’ll say a few things up front. This might be a wishy-washy piece, because I’m not going to arrive at any answers here. I simply don’t have them. All I intend to do — all I’m capable of doing — is raising a few points that may be worth considering. I’m not a big TV watcher. I’ve never seen “Duck Dynasty,” nor have I ever felt any desire to check it out. I have gay and lesbian friends and relatives, and I am a staunch supporter of their rights. Robertson’s remarks about homosexuality, which I will not reiterate here, were grossly insulting to these friends and family members of mine. They disgusted me.
I saw some comments on social media to the effect that A&E’s decision to fire Robertson was a violation of the constitutional principle of freedom of speech. My first reaction, when I saw those comments, was to roll my eyes. Don’t these people understand what “the constitutional principle of freedom of speech” means? It refers to the role of government. If a government agency subjected Robertson to some kind of legal sanction for his remarks, THAT would be a violation of constitutional principles. Didn’t happen.
He has a legal right to say whatever he wants. And if I find his remarks offensive (which I do) and decide to start a boycott of A&E unless they fire him (which seems unnecessary at this point), I’m exercising my freedom of speech. The system works.
But is it really that simple?
Let’s not talk about Freedom of Speech, the constitutional principle. Let’s talk about plain ol’ freedom of speech — the ability to say what you want, when you want. The rationale for Robertson’s firing is that he entered into a contract with A&E. He was essentially serving as a public face of the company. If he does something to make himself a liability to the network, they can fire him. Nobody forced him to sign that contract at gunpoint.
Obviously, that kind of thing is very important for TV personalities, whose entire job description is based on being in the public eye. Companies should be able to dismiss employees who become liabilities in that respect, right?
Yet, that also sounds very similar to the company policy that says I can be fired for writing this blog post. Nobody forced me at gunpoint to sign that agreement. (Although I was informed of that policy only after I’d left my previous employer and showed up for the first day of the new job. Just sayin’.)
And I can’t say I’d necessarily be opposed to that policy, under certain circumstances. I work hard doing my part to make the company I work for successful. Ideological objections aside, I would be very annoyed if a colleague negated my efforts by driving off potential customers with a misogynistic blog or self-published anti-Semitic rant tract. Even if he wrote said blog or rant tract on his own time, it would make little difference if people saw him as the public face of the company. I’d likely be happy if this theoretical co-worker got his ass fired.
But at the risk of stating the obvious, it’s easy to protect speech you agree with and condemn speech you disagree with. The problem is that it’s always a double-edged sword. Sanctions that you condone for the guy you DON’T agree with can eventually apply to the one you DO agree with. Or to you.
So let’s look at employers with the “no public controversy” clause. Like mine. Yeah, you could argue that nobody’s forcing anybody to work for them. But would that really hold any more water than the argument that nobody was forcing black people to patronize segregated diners in the early 1960s?
And say that clause went on to become as ubiquitous and accepted as workplace prohibitions on smoking. What if you had no reasonable option other than to accept it?
It’s not hard to imagine some dire possibilities arising from that scenario. For example, picture selective enforcement where bosses fired employees with blogs supporting Political Candidate A, but looked the other way when they supported Political Candidate B. Having recently worked for an employer that blatantly harassed union supporters via selective enforcement, I know that’s no abstract hypothetical.
So there’s no question A&E had a legal right to fire Robertson, and a sound practical reason to do so. I’m just wondering if I should be applauding what happened to him. Even if I think he’s wrong.
By the way — you may wonder why I’m writing this, despite what I was saying back there in the first sentence. It’s because I believe in freedom of speech. Although I’m not always sure what it means these days.