Thursday, October 6, 2011

Freedom of Speech Just Isn’t That Complicated (and other notes about Hank Williams Jr.)

Some things are complicated; other things, less so. Take for example the protections for speech embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution (pertinent part in red):

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or 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.

But far too many people seem to think that the protections of the First Amendment apply to the acts of individuals and businesses, not just the government. For example, read what Hank Williams Jr. had to say today about his quitting (or being fired — it isn’t entirely clear) from ESPN for making offensive comments (more on that in a minute):

After reading hundreds of e-mails, I have made MY decision. By pulling my opening Oct 3rd, You (ESPN) stepped on the Toes of The First Amendment Freedom of Speech, so therefore Me, My Song, and All My Rowdy Friends are OUT OF HERE. It’s been a great run.

Did you get that? According to Williams, ESPN “stepped on the Toes of The First Amendment Freedom of Speech…” (what’s with the weird capitalization…?). Um, sorry, Hank, but no. ESPN not only did not step on any First Amendment toes, it could not step on First Amendment toes because ESPN is not a governmental entity. The First Amendment allows Williams to make any stupid, asinine, racist, hateful statement that he wants. But the First Amendment does not require ESPN to air those statements or to continue to employ or have business relations with Williams.

This reminds me a bit of comments Sarah Palin made during the 2008 campaign when she was criticized for saying that Barack Obama “palled around with terrorists” (emphasis added):

If they convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning, for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations, then I don’t know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media.

Similarly, when Laura Ingraham was criticized for a profanity-ridden tirade on her radio show (from which she then resigned), Palin noted on Twitter:

Dr.Laura:don’t retreat…reload! (Steps aside bc her 1st Amend.rights ceased 2exist thx 2activists trying 2silence”isn’t American,not fair”)

But all too many people — and unfortunately, all to many prominent people — seem to think that the First Amendment protects them from criticism or gives them a right to be heard. It does not.

The First Amendment means that I can stand on a tree stump and shout my ideas to the world; but it does not mean that anybody has to come listen. The First Amendment means that I can write a book with crazy ideas; but it does not mean that anybody has to read it. And the First Amendment means that I can tell a newspaper reporter what I really think; but it doesn’t mean that he has to print it.

And therein lies the confusion behind the statements of people like Williams and Palin. The problem is that these people want us to take their points of view seriously and want to have an influence on politics and our government (thankfully Palin isn’t running for the GOP nomination, but Williams is allegedly considering a run for the Senate from Tennessee). But they don’t understand the core concepts embodied in the First Amendment.

We have to ask ourselves whether people whose understanding of this fundamental component of the Constitution is so fatally flawed are people whose voices we should pay any attention to, let alone follow or elect.

I wonder what Williams would say if I bought a ticket to his concert and then claimed a First Amendment right to climb onto the stage and say what I think? Is he violating my First Amendment rights if he refuses to allow me to write my thoughts on the liner notes of his next album? And when FOX News refuses to allow me to appear to tell Sean Hannity that he’s … anyway, I think you get the point. Williams has the right to decide who can speak from his stage or on his album. FOX News can decide who can appear on their programs. And ESPN can decide if they want to keep playing Williams’ song. And none of those decisions impact the First Amendment.

Yes, there are complicated issues that arise under this part of the First Amendment, whether we’re talking about defamation or the public forum doctrine or reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions. But the basic question of whether a private corporation violates someone’s First Amendment right to free speech by refusing to provide a forum to that person is not one of those complicated issues.

I also want to back up and look at the comments Williams made on FOX News that led to this situation:

WILLIAMS: You remember the -- you remember the golf game they had, ladies and gentlemen?

DOOCY: Yeah?

WILLIAMS: Remember the golf game?

DOOCY: Boehner?

WILLIAMS: That was one of the biggest political mistakes ever.


WILLIAMS: That turned a lot of people off. You know, watching, you know, it just didn't go over.

CARLSON: You mean when John Boehner played golf with President Obama?

WILLIAMS: Oh, yeah! Yeah. And Biden and Kasich, yeah. Uh-huh.

CARLSON: What did you not like about it? It seems to be a really pivotal moment for you.

WILLIAMS: Come on. Come on. It would be like Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu, OK?


WILLIAMS: Not hardly. In the country this shape is in, the shape this country's in, I mean, no, I don't think so.

BRIAN KILMEADE (co-host): Yeah, I don't understand that analogy, actually.

DOOCY: Well, it's -- it's out there.

WILLIAMS: Well, I'm glad you don't, brother, because a lot of people do. You know, they're the enemy. They're the enemy.

KILMEADE: Who's the enemy?

WILLIAMS: Obama! And Biden! Are you kidding? The Three Stooges.

Now I get that some people dislike President Obama, maybe even hate him. But Hitler? I mean, we’ve covered this ground before, but I think that it’s important to take a quick look at the context of Williams’ comparison. He doesn’t say that President Obama’s policies remind him of Hitler. Nor does he suggest that President Obama is trying to stage a coup or consolidate power like Hitler. His statement doesn’t appear to have anything to do with policy. Rather, he suggests that a golf game between the President and Vice President of the United States and the Speaker of the House and a sitting governor — a social activity during which leaders of the two political parties might have a chance to talk — was completely and totally unacceptable. But he didn’t just say that; rather, he went further still and presented an analogy where one side represents one of the greatest mass murderers in history and the other side represents his victims.

Even with all the animosity people like Williams feel toward President Obama and even with their apparent view that the Republicans should not negotiate or compromise, why does the analogy have to be one in which President Obama is compared to Hitler? And, for that matter, why would President Obama and Vice President Obama be characterized, not as political opponents or people with whom Williams has a differing political viewpoint (which, recall, he can express thanks to the First Amendment…), but as “the enemy”.

To Williams, President Obama is so evil, so beyond the purview of human understanding, that the mere act of playing golf with him is a terrible, unforgivable sin. Really?

What would Williams have Americans do with an “enemy” comparable to Hitler? Somehow just voting for someone else doesn’t seem a “punishment” worthy of the “crime”.

So now let’s look at Williams’ “apology”. First, came this attempt to explain his comments:

Some of us have strong opinions and are often misunderstood. My analogy was extreme — but it was to make a point. I was simply trying to explain how stupid it seemed to me — how ludicrous that pairing was. They’re polar opposites and it made no sense. They don’t see eye-to-eye and never will. I have always respected the office of the President.

Every time the media brings up the tea party it’s painted as racist and extremists — but there’s never a backlash — no  outrage to those comparisons… Working class people are hurting — and it doesn’t seem like anybody cares. When both sides are high-fiving it on the ninth hole when everybody else is without a job — it makes a whole lot of us angry.  Something has to change. The policies have to change.

Does that explanation clear anything up for you? And did you note that he gets upset that the Tea Party is painted as being racist and extremist … in his explanation for why he compared President Obama to Hitler? Nope, no extremism there. Move along… Now might be a good time to go back and review all of those photos I posted of the Tea Party making that same comparison together with expressing other charming views (see list of links at the bottom of this post).

Following that explanation, Williams tried his hand at an apology, of sorts:

I have always been very passionate about Politics and Sports and this time it got the Best or Worst of me. The thought of the Leaders of both Parties Jukin and High Fiven on a Golf course, while so many Families are Struggling to get by simply made me Boil over and make a Dumb statement and I am very Sorry if it Offended anyone. I would like to Thank all my supporters. This was Not written by some Publicist.

Note that classic formulation of this non-apology apology. He doesn’t say that he is sorry for making the comparison that he made or that it was wrong (just “Dumb”). Nope. Instead he says that he is “very Sorry if it Offended anyone” (emphasis added). In other words, he isn’t sorry for the words he used; he’s only sorry that someone might have taken offense at those words. It’s like saying, “I’m not sorry I called you an asshole, I’m sorry you were offended that I called you an asshole.” Watch for that sort of non-apology double-speak, as it has become quite popular among politicians and others who are forced to publicly “apologize” for things they’ve said.

Oh, and Hank? By the way you write, trust me: We can tell that it wasn’t written by a publicist…

One final point that I want to make about Williams. When I visited his website to find his statements, the first image that confronted me left me a bit dumbfounded:


Stop and look at that picture for a moment let it sink in.

I’m not sure what the logo in the middle of the flag is. I tried to find it on Google but had no success (though I only spent a few minutes; if you recognize it, please let me know). But the flag itself is pretty obvious, isn’t it? That is, indeed, a Confederate battle flag. For those who forget their civil war history, that flag represents, plainly put, treason. It represents those who took up arms against the United States so that they could continue to own slaves. It is the flag that was flown as Americans killed one another on battlefields across our country. And here it is, being oh so proudly displayed by members of the United States military (presumably in Iraq or Afghanistan). Does that trouble you? It troubles the hell out of me…

And of all the images for Williams to choose to advertise his Facebook page, he chooses an image of apparently active duty, deployed soldiers displaying the flag of treason. What does that tell us about Williams? It tells me just about all I need to know.

For my part, I’m looking forward to Monday Night Football continuing to open without a song sung by an apparently insensitive, stupid, bigot. Goodbye, Hank. Good riddance.

Here are links to all (I think) of my posts with images of the Tea Party displaying racist or violent rhetoric:

A Sampling of Signs from the "Tea Bag" Parties That You Didn't See on the News
A Sampling of Signs from the "Tea Bag" Parties That You Didn't See on the News (update 1)
Here We Go Again: More “Tax Protest” Signs
Here We Go Again: More “Tax Protest” Signs (Part 2)
Here We Go Again: More “Tax Protest” Signs (Part 3)
Here We Go Again: More “Tax Protest” Signs (Part 4)
Tea Party Idiots Are Back ... and Just as Vile
How Do We Respond?
Yet More Tea Party Signs: Racism, Violent Rhetoric, and Idiocy
What Violent Rhetoric? Washington Times Alleges a “Pogrom” Against “Conservative Thinkers”

Just for fun (with a bit of bonus racism):

Teabonics: More Reasons to Fear the Teabaggers.

For comparison, here is my post on the Stewart/Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear (that I attended, albeit briefly):

Some Signs from the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear

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