Comedian Roseanne ignited social media with her tweet about an Obama adviser. In response, ABC cancelled her rebooted show. In seemingly unconnected news, the NFL has decided that players will be fined if players take a knee during the national anthem. While this might appear an odd claim, they are related in important ways. One similarity is the matter of free expression.
While the Bill of Rights does provide some degree of protection for the freedom of speech in the First Amendment, this protection is only against congress. The amendment does not protect citizens from limits on the freedom of speech imposed by their employers. In the case of Roseanne’s racist tweet, ABC had the legal right to cancel her show (presumably there was no clause in her contract forbidding termination for racist tweets). In the case of NFL, it has the legal right to forbid players to protest and can back this up with fines and even termination of employment.
There are, obviously enough, differences between the two situations. Roseanne got in trouble because of a racist tweet. ABC was, one would infer, worried about the consequences to their brand if they allowed her show to continue. As such, she was fired because her employer thinks that enough of ABC’s viewers would be offended by the racism to harm their bottom line. Then again, ABC might have been acting from a moral opposition to racism.
In the case of the NFL, the concern is that the free expression of the players in protest against injustice and racism will anger enough of the NFL fanbase to impact their bottom line. That is, the concern is that the anti-protest nationalism of a key segment of their fans will impact their profits. As such, they have acted to restrict the liberty of the players to appease the avowed lovers of liberty. As with ABC, it could be claimed that the NFL was acting from moral concerns about the wrongness of protesting injustice and racism. It is also worth considering that some of the fanbase are fine with protests; they just do not want their entertainment interrupted by such protests.
Since the freedom of speech is regarded as so important that it is protected from the federal government by the very first amendment, there is the moral concern about employers restricting this freedom. Looked at one way, employers have a power that exceeds that of the state: they are free to restrict the freedom of speech of their employees to a degree that might please a dictator.
One sensible reply to this concern is that employees are generally free to quit their jobs if they find the restriction on their liberty too onerous. As such, unlike with a state dictatorship, leaving the tyranny of the employer is easy. While this is true, there is the fact that most people cannot escape employment—that is, people need to work to do more than just survive. As such, the tyranny of employers is quite a challenge to escape. For most people, if they have a job they must take care in their speech, lest they be punished or fired. This, of course, applies across the political spectrum—although the left tends to have a broader range of what they consider unacceptable speech.
It could be countered that people are only limited in their speech by their employer when they are on the job—they are otherwise free to engage in expression. While this might hold in some cases, it seems to be generally untrue. After all, Roseanne was fired for a tweet made on her own time. Employers can, of course, punish or fire employees for speech that occurs outside of their work hours. As such, the control of the employer extends around the clock.
People on the political right, such as Roseanne seems to be, must worry that their speech will create a reaction from their left that could cost them their job. People on the left must also worry that their speech will cause a reaction that could cost them their job. As such, while the United States has freedom of speech (albeit with many limitations) and no general state mechanism of oppressing this right, the employment system and the population itself serve to create a climate of fear that effectively limits freedom of expression. This seems to be at least as morally problematic as state suppression of free speech.
It could be countered that this system, while suffering from some flaws, works reasonably well. That is, it tends to punish people who make racist, sexist or otherwise morally problematic remarks. Some might point to Roseanne and say that her downfall is a feature and not a bug—it has punished an alleged racist and taken away a platform for her expression. However, the same system is also taking aim at the NFL players who want to protest racism and injustice. But, just perhaps, this is also a feature—the system can be seen as bipartisan in that it can be used to threaten people all across the political spectrum and to try to coerce folks left and right into silence.
Since I value the freedom of expression, even when exercised by people I disagree with, I find this system morally unacceptable—as noted above, it is an engine of suppression that restricts a fundamental right. The fact that the right is not being restricted primarily by the state is largely irrelevant—what matters is that the right is being restricted regardless of the agents of restriction.