Like a game of musical chairs, many liberals and conservatives have changed positions on the First Amendment. “Roseanne” has been cancelled by ABC because the show’s star, Roseanne Barr, made a racist remark about Valerie Jarrett, a former senior advisor to former President Barack Obama.
Barr wrote that Jarret is what happens when the “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj.”
Many liberals have expressed support for ABC severing ties with Barr and they are glad racist statements are being met with consequences. Many conservatives are lamenting the “end of free speech.”
But just a week ago, it was many liberals who were lamenting the “end of free speech” with the NFL’s policy aimed at stopping players from kneeling during the National Anthem. Conservatives were the ones saying the players had to abide by what their job required.
The situation, as it often does, has completely reversed.
The First Amendment is supposed to mean freedom from the government punishing you for what you say or write. It does not protect you from how your employer responds. It also does not prevent others from criticizing or insulting you in response to what you said.
If Roseanne wants to make more racist or controversial statements, she is free to do so. ABC is also free to disassociate itself from her and cancel her show. The First Amendment does not give you a right to a TV show.
Likewise, the First Amendment does not give you the right to play football.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s owners are free to decide how its players should conduct themselves while in uniform. The NFL also has the right to fire players if it thinks they are conducting themselves in an unacceptable manner. That includes firing or suspending players for what they say and do off the field, just as Roseanne was fired for what she said off the set of her show.
Where this is a First Amendment issue is how people choose to respond. Anyone is free to stop watching other ABC shows in protest. They’re also free to criticize ABC. They’re even free to grossly mischaracterize this as a First Amendment issue.
But beyond the normal hypocrisy, the worst part is that it has become quite clear that many people in this country do not understand the nuances of free speech or how it actually works. That’s troublesome because you can’t really defend values or morality unless you understand them. And if you don’t understand them, you’ll never really know when or how to defend them.
Both the NFL protests Roseanne’s tweet are not First Amendment issues. But many of us view them that way, which reveals the possibility that many of us only think people who agree with us deserve to express ourselves. If the person you agree with shouldn’t be punished but the person you don’t agree with should, what other conclusions should be drawn?
If that’s true, that’s a dangerous situation. Our freedoms are in real danger if we only believe in them half of the time. It’s very hard for government to strip anything from a united populace. But it gets all the more easy if we’re divided and bickering.