Even the most basic facts are in dispute. Was Hank Williams Jr. fired by ESPN or did he quit? Was Williams’ comment (Obama playing golf with Boehner like Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu) a comparison of Obama to Hitler, or was it an analogy of the irony in meetings between enemies? And if it was in fact a comparison of the men in question, rather than an analogy, how do we know that Williams wasn’t comparing Obama to Netanyahu, or Boehner to Hitler? Or was Williams’ separation from ESPN, whether he resigned or was fired, a consequence of other things he said?
We may never know the answers to these questions, but there are some things we can know. We can, for instance, know to the point of a moral certainty that this flap is not a First Amendment issue. No court in the country would adjudicate this matter along the lines of First Amendment case law.
There is no doubt that ESPN was within its First Amendment rights to do what(ever) it did. There was no governmental involvement in this matter, and though Mr. Williams certainly has his own First Amendment rights, they do not extend, under constitutional law, to his continued employment by ESPN.
All this said, nobody who believes deeply in freedom of speech, both as an individual right and as a vital and salutary aspect of citizenship in a democracy, can be happy about any of this. It is, sad to say, just another example of the steady erosion of freedom of expression in an age of political correctness.
As written on an earlier such occasion, one wonders where the push to sanitize speech along PC lines will end. There’s no gainsaying that some kinds of speech are ugly and hurtful. But increasingly, political correctness seems to be working in a way that shuts off honest debate and discussion, and seeks to isolate politically those people whose views or statements are seen not just as offensive but as undermining aspects or elements of the status quo.
Most people with knowledge of the matter understand that the actions of the MSM, regarding issues like those in the Williams affair, can be explained by the media’s fear of damage to their “brands,” often in consequence of retaliation by organized single-issue and special-interest groups, who frequently mount campaigns against the offending media’s advertisers. Looked at this way, the MSM’s acquiescence in things PC is understandable, but history may show that understandable was not good enough.
Media companies depend on more than the constitutional protection of the First Amendment for their free rein – they rely crucially on the goodwill they create with the public. The problem with giving lip service to freedom of speech, while breaking it to the saddle of political correctness, is that over time this can erode the public’s confidence in the media as faithful stewards of free-speech rights broadly speaking.
Several years ago, The Media Institute created and launched a national celebration called Free Speech Week, which this year begins today. That we decided to name it this, rather than, say, First Amendment Week, was no accident. We put free speech in the name of it because we wanted to celebrate and promote not just those kinds of speech that are constitutionally protected, but those that are not as well. Episodes like the Hank Williams affair demonstrate why it’s so important that this movement grow and prosper.
The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.