Every spring, I have to attend a state-wide supervisor’s conference. It’s something I’d rather not go to, since it’s mostly “same old, same old,” but the main value is the social interactions with the other supervisors. In the after-hours chatting, the buzz was about one of the supervisors recently having been fired. What did they do? They’d posted a very offensive racist comment on a newspaper story. Unfortunately for them, this particular newspaper used the Facebook comment plug-in, which linked that comment right back to their Facebook page. On which, they prominently had their job title and employer. The numerous people offended by the comment promptly sent off e-mails and made phone calls to the head office.
A number of people at the meeting were wondering why she’d been fired, because she had made the comment on her own time from her home computer, not at work and on a work computer. “What about free speech?” was a common line. I ended up spending time explaining the “why.” If they hadn’t listed our employer on her page, the odds were that they’d still have their job. But because they had, that comment reflected on our employer, and we have a lot of policies about equal opportunity, nondiscrimination, and behavior on the internet in your official capacity. Six years ago, I pointed out that having a right does not mean without consequences.
I can’t think of a single employer I’ve had over the years that hasn’t had some form of “stricture” on my “free speech.” Particularly when it came to identifying myself with that employer, or when my speech reflected on them. Most of them had formal policies in an employee handbook, but some would just make it clear up front. I’ve never been allowed to run around my workplaces stumping for a candidate, I most definitely wouldn’t have been allowed to proselytize a religion, or announce any racial or sexual preference opinions.
There has been a lot of whining recently from the Right about various people being “censored” for what they say on the internet, and various media people on the right feeling the bite of boycotts and censure.
If there’s one thing that has become crystal clear over the past few years, it’s that people seem to think having a right means that they shouldn’t have any consequences for exercising that right.
I’ve often harped on the lack of civics education, and that is a sterling example of that. There has never in the history of this country that “free speech” means “consequence free.” There was nothing to say they had to change their statements, no one said they didn’t have the right to their opinions, but it doesn’t mean that they could say those things without any consequences. That the outlets many of these people used have decided that they will no longer tolerate their statements, and not allow them to use their platforms to broadcast them any longer, is a consequence of their speech.
So, one more time. Freedom of speech does not mean consequence free. If you don’t want to accept that there are consequences, I suggest invoking another right: The right to remain silent.