Occupy Free Speech?

Published October 27, 2011

I want to be perfectly clear: I don’t believe all Occupy Wall Street protestors foam at the mouth, possess bad hygienic habits, or are uneducated and lazy. But some say stupid, ugly things. Like Los Angeles substitute teacher Patricia McAllister.

In an interview Oct. 12 with Reason.tv, Patricia McAllister said this: “I think that the Zionist Jews who are running these big banks and our Federal Reserve, which is not run by the federal government, they need to be run out of this country.” The video has gone viral, and McAllister found herself summarily dismissed by L.A. schools Superintendent John Deasy for her perceived anti-Semitic remark.

I’m not sure Mr. Deasy made the right call, but I’ll defend his right to render his judgment. Blathering opinions in a public forum captured for Internet and television broadcast viewing or reading isn’t really the issue inasmuch as whether employers or consumers rightly or wrongly wish to condemn such speech in a public forum.

Leaving aside the specific charges against what Ms. McAllister willfully uttered to the Reason.tv camera, several say her remarks are protected under the First Amendment. And they defend McAllister because her comments were made away from the workplace. This is the “Dixie Chicks” defense – if you utter a controversial opinion far enough away from your home fan-base or place of work, you get a free pass.

The Dixie Chicks, remember, were so stung by the widespread disapproval of singer Natalie Maine’s belittling of George W. Bush that they provocatively appeared naked and sad on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. Some of the nasty stuff said about them was written on their bodies.

The Dixie Chicks, of course, had every right to confess embarrassment that President George W. Bush hailed from their home state of Texas in front of a United Kingdom audience – just as Hank Williams Jr. had every right to employ an awkward analogy about the current administration on Fox & Friends. And John Lennon could observe the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. And Mel Gibson could deliver an incoherent anti-Jewish rant.

Likewise, Ms. McAllister has a right to shoot off her mouth about Jewish conspiracies stolen straight out of the 1920s’ Dearborn Independent – Henry Ford’s homegrown anti-Semitic yellow rag.

Defenders of McAllister, Hank Jr., the Dixie Chicks’ Maines, Lennon, Gibson, and Ford argue the First Amendment protects them. Just so. Possessing the right to say controversial things regardless your talent or business acumen, however, doesn’t relieve you from the consequences of blowback. Hence, Henry Ford’s reputation is historically tarnished by anti-Semitism, the whiff of burning CDs and vinyl recordings will surround forever the legacies of the Beatles and the Dixie Chicks, future box office receipts for Gibson more than likely will never reach previously attained levels, and Hank Jr’s biography will note he was fired by ESPN over the singer’s convoluted sillygism.

Don’t like what McAllister or Hank said? Fire ’em. Don’t like what the Dixie Chicks and John Lennon said? Don’t buy their products. The same holds for Ford and Gibson.

Free speech, in other words, doesn’t imply all speech is protected especially when it comes to at-will employment or the free-market of public opinion. These issues have become more prevalent as the Internet transmits instantaneously our actions, thoughts, stupidity, and – I hold out hope – wisdom. And even the National Labor Relations Board has taken it upon itself to rule on firings based on employee social media activities.

I’m no fan of political correctness or dogmatism in the realm of speech (trust me on this) but I do believe in decorum and the rights of employers to dismiss workers who publicly broadcast controversial opinions. As an LA Times editorial so succinctly puts it: “No right is absolute.”

Bruce Edward Walker is managing editor of The Heartland Institute’s InfoTech & Telecom News.