ESPN Anchor Calls Trump a Racist via Twitter 1

Jemele Hill, the 41 year-old co-anchor of the ESPN’s flagship SportsCenter program, set off a political firestorm a few days ago, when she tweeted out the comment, shown above, labeling President Donald J. Trump as a “white supremacist who surrounds himself with other white supremacists.”

Hill, a highly respected television journalist, was expressing her personal opinions, off the air, via Twitter, exercising her free speech rights. Hill posted her Twitter comment on Monday, September 11.

On Tuesday, ESPN jumped into the fray with a Twitter post in which the network disavowed Hill’s statement, indicating that her statement did not reflect the positions of ESPN.  As the insert indicates, ESPN went even further than simply repudiating Hill’s statement. They also insisted that Hill now “recognizes her actions were inappropriate. ”

We don’t think Hill’s comments were inappropriate. They were an expression of opinion. This, therefore, is another case in which the Trump administration appears to be incapable of separating facts from opinions. What the employee of an organization – any organization – says or writes on their own time, away from their official responsibilities, is covered by their First Amendment guaranteed right of freedom of speech.  Just as an employee at Facebook cannot be fired for anti-Semitic beliefs, a sports reporter for a cable network does not give up her free speech rights simply because she works for the network.

At 3 P.M. on Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders used the bully pulpit of her office to virtually demand that ESPN fire Hill, saying that, “I think that’s one of the more outrageous comments that anyone could make and certainly something that I think is a fireable offense by ESPN.” 

Even if you ignore Huckabee Sander’s fractured syntax, the fact remains that ESPN tried to please the White House by attempting to oust Hill from the anchor slot at 6 PM….and that’s when this story gets really interesting.

The on-air staff simply refused to take over Hill’s plum assignment according to ThinkProgress reports on the subject. Right off the bat, Hill’s co-anchor, Michael Smith, refused to go on the air without her, which left ESPN without anyone to hold down the anchor desk during the highly coveted 6 PM slot.

Then, in a remarkable demonstration of solidarity, two other ESPN on-air personalities, Michael Eaves and Elle Duncan, refused to step into the 6 PM time slot to replace Hill and Smith, according to the ThinkProgress story by Lindsay Gibbs.

Stuck without any other choices, ESPN had to choose between no anchors at all, replacing two black anchors with two white anchors, or throwing in the towel and letting Hill and Smith do their thing in their usual manner.  According to ESPN, the network never considered calling in white anchors….perhaps because they were afraid the white anchors would also refuse to take the gig in solidarity with their teammates.

If this story ended right here, it would have been a clear victory for the freedom of speech. Unfortunately, on Thursday, Hill appeared to have capitulated to ESPN to the extent of issuing a standard CYA retraction indicating that she regrets the whole thing.  Even this much capitulation is a bad thing for the freedom of speech. This president has repeatedly attacked the media and anyone else who fails to give him the respect he believes he deserves. Hill’s apology will only encourage him to endorse more and more repressive attempts to limit free speech.

It’s a common misconception that we all have freedom of speech. If your speeches aren’t heard by anyone, if you have no audience, your free speech doesn’t really matter. When you have a podium that reaches millions of people every day your ability to speak freely is of paramount importance because, if you have that podium, you also have an obligation to speak for those who don’t have that clout.

Evidence of the widespread misunderstanding of the meaning of freedom of speech shows up clearly in a post on this subject by Raj Prashad on the FanBuzz website, in which he says that, “We do have freedom of speech as Americans, but that freedom does not make us immune to the consequences of what we say, good or bad.”

Mr. Prashad does not appear to understand that this is EXACTLY what the freedom of speech means, that you can speak your mind in public and in private without having to fear reprisals for having spoken, absent libel or slander. In other words, you may not cite false facts, but you have a perfect right to express your opinion. More importantly, our existing defamation laws have a specific exemption that prevents public figures from filing suits based on incorrect, harmful statements unless there is proof that the writer or publisher acted with actual malice. Malice specifically means having prior knowledge that the statements are false or recklessly disregarding contradicting facts.

In layman’s language, as long as you believe it is true, you can make any statement you want against a public figure with absolute legal impunity. Donald Trump’s alleged racist attitudes are fair game for you, me, Jemele Hill, or any other American.

Unable to simply let the story die, ESPN followed up Jemele Hill’s mea culpa with the following, convoluted reaction, also via Twitter: “Jemele has a right to her personal opinions, but not to publicly share them on a platform that implies that she was in any way speaking on behalf of ESPN. She has acknowledged that her tweets crossed that line and has apologized for doing so. We accept her apology.”

This is utter bull s***, and was clearly intended to serve as a palliative for the White House. It’s bull s*** – and I’m sorry but there isn’t anything else you can rightly call it – because the tweet was issued from Jemele Hill’s personal twitter account,  not from a corporate account.  In effect, ESPN is saying – and Hill has agreed – that she can have opinions, but she just can’t share those opinions with anyone else.

Of course, this story wouldn’t be complete without Donald’s own reaction to the brouhaha. In his own tweet, Trump alleges that ESPN’s viewership is declining because of its politics.  ESPN’s own research indicates that, while its viewership is off from its 2011 high of 100 million subscribers in 2011 to the current 87.4  million reported by Luke Kerr-Dineen via ForTheWin. com  clearly predates the network’s increasingly political programming and has more to do with cable cutting than any overt rejection of their political commentary.

Now that the brouhaha is dying down, we should spend a moment to reflect upon the fact that we have a president who worries about what is being said about him by off-duty sports reporters.