There is a great deal of discussion these days about who can protest and how, who can say what, and who should be fired for offensive speech. Should NFL players be allowed to kneel during the national anthem? Was ABC right to cancel Roseanne Barr’s hit television show over a racist tweet directed at Valerie Jarrett? Was TBS right not to fire Samantha Bee after she used a crude expletive to describe Ivanka Trump? 

But people are asking the wrong questions. First off, let’s put to bed the idea that these are free-speech issues. They are not. The First Amendment protects us from government censorship. That does not mean there can be no consequences for offensive speech, including from employers. If I were to disparage my employer publicly, I would no doubt be fired and I would have no claim that my civil rights were violated. Similarly, the NFL has the right (subject to its collective bargaining agreement with the players) to institute rules of conduct, including specifying behavior during the national anthem. That is not to say the NFL should force players to stand or stay in the locker room. Only that it can. 

Similarly, ABC was fully within its rights to cancel Roseanne (subject to any relevant language in their contract). 

Another aspect of the discussion has been about what the NFL, ABC and TBS should have done. It may be interesting to second-guess corporate decisions, but these questions are not particularly important. The questions Americans should be grappling with are who gets to make these decisions and, more importantly, who doesn’t? The anthem decision is the NFL’s. It is free to consult with players, sponsors, fans, whomever it likes. But it should not be forced into the decision by a government trying to advance a political agenda. 

The NFL is not an arm of the state. A president declaring that protesting players should be fired or calling owners to pressure them to take stronger action is far more repugnant than any supposed disrespect the players are showing the flag. And the Bee and Barr decisions are TBS’s and ABC’s, respectively. The president’s press secretary demanding the firing of a reporter or public figure critical of the administration, as she did with Bee last week and Jemele Hill last fall, should scare us much more than the words either of those two have spoken. 

When a government dictates the actions of private businesses, or even suggests what actions would be favorably looked upon, there is a risk it will do so to stifle dissent. One needs only look to the White House’s disparate reactions to Sam Bee and to Roseanne to see this possibility playing out. The administration was outraged by Bee, one of its most vocal critics, and called for her to be fired. But the White House did not denounce the nauseating racism of Roseanne, a Trump supporter, and instead complained that ABC apologized to Valerie Jarrett for the incident. 

Let’s quit worrying about whether using the C-word is worse than referring to a black woman as an ape. Let’s quit agonizing about whether kneeling during the national anthem is an affront to the ideals of the nation or a plea for the nation to live up to those ideals. Let’s worry about a president who tries to make unemployable anyone who does not adhere to his vision of how to make America great again.

Lenny Soffer is a resident of River Forest. 

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