As long as we’re having this important free-speech conversation, and hoping this conversation leads to the important race-relations conversation, let’s make sure it’s properly framed:
It most definitely is about freedom of speech, but maybe not in the way some people think.
President Donald Trump, having successfully solved all of our other problems, jumped mouth first into this one with his Friday night political rally remarks about the NFL players who kneel during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He spoke about how cool it would be if owners would fire those players: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d say: ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired.’ ”
As happens from time to time (day to day? hour to hour? tweet to tweet?), some folks recoiled in horror at Trump’s remarks, including many who seem to think our president needs a lesson in the First Amendment. I’m pretty sure he does, especially when it comes to threatening to push new laws to curtail freedom of the press.
Forgive me if I sound a bit touchy on this, but, to me, curtailing freedom of the press is about as dangerous as it gets.
But what I’m steamed about this time is Trump’s dangerous desire to tell private employers what to do. Seems counterintuitive for a business guy.
First, let’s make it clear that NFL team owners — as Trump wants them to do — have a right to discipline or fire (subject to contractual agreements) an employee who, while on the job, says or does something the owner does not like. The concept of free speech is on the employers’ side, protecting them from being forced to spend money to support political beliefs in which they don’t believe.
The important concept embodied in the First Amendment is at work here. But the First Amendment itself is not. Here’s the relevant part: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The First Amendment is about you and your government. It’s not about you and your employer, especially when you’re at work and sometimes when you’re not. Employers reserve the right to restrict employees’ free speech. It could be for what you’re saying. It could be for fear of adverse business impact. Signing paychecks brings certain prerogatives.
Planned Parenthood does not have to employ somebody who tells clients abortion is murder.
This newspaper tells staffers that we’re “encouraged, even urged” to vote.
“However, because our profession requires stringent efforts against partiality and perceptions of bias, staff members should avoid political activity beyond that,” the employee policy manual says. “Those who do not should be aware that their involvement may affect their duties at the paper. For example, marching in an abortion rally could preclude a reporter not only from covering that issue but perhaps other health issues.”
Staffers also are cautioned that “if there is a reasonable chance that their outside activity could reflect on the fairness or credibility of the newspaper and its coverage, they should not become involved.”
A restriction on free speech? Absolutely. An unfair restriction on free speech? Absolutely not.
The NFL and its individual teams are for-profit, privately held businesses — except the Green Bay Packers, who are nonprofit and community owned. Those team owners can restrict the at-work behavior of their employees.
In this situation, I have great respect for the owners who’ve decided to allow their employees to express their political views during the national anthem. I have even greater respect for the owners who stood with their employees during the national anthem.
I also have great respect for the players who take a knee to briefly divert our thoughts away from the three hours of entertainment to come. It is not disrespectful of the nation or the flag or the people who have fought to defend it. In fact, it enacts one of the most important notions for which those people fought. And my thoughts on this are driven by an overarching notion more important than any particular conversation.
In this conversation, what I don’t have respect for is an ostensibly pro-business president who, in coarse language below the presidency, tries to tell private business owners how to run their private businesses.
Laissez-faire, Mr. President.