SOMEWHERE IN AFGHANISTAN—Two months ago, long-time White House correspondent Helen Thomas got fired by the Hearst newspaper conglomerate in response to her off-the-cuff slam at Israel. I criticized the firing on free-speech grounds.
"Free speech must be defended no matter what—even that of cranky anti-Semitic columnists (if that's what Thomas is/was)," I wrote. "Unless we are truly free to say what we think—without fear of reprisal—free speech is not a right. It is merely a permission."
I received many letters in response. Most people disagreed with me.
A letter from Joseph Just was typical but better-written than most (which is why I quote it here): "Ms. Thomas has been denied not one of her constitutional rights. She faces no fine, legal censure or criminal charges for saying what she said. Her immunity from the threat of such sanction (rather than immunity from being, shall we say, 'asked to resign') is what the First Amendment protects."
Legally, Just is right. The First Amendment does not protect us from economic reprisals. I was arguing that employers ought to choose not to fire people for speaking their minds.
Unfortunately, employers seem to be whacking people for what they say outside of work more than ever.
Posters at Democratic Underground, a left-of-center discussion site frequented by that rarest and most appreciated of creatures, balls-out Democrats, has long been a community I've been able to count upon. On the Thomas issue, however, they sound like Sean Hannity. "Private organizations aren't and shouldn't be required to put up with speech they don't agree with," said one poster. "Freedom of speech doesn't mean freedom from criticism," argued a third. "It means that you can say what you want without the threat of being thrown in jail."
Funny, these same libertarians would have freaked out if the artists who created the Danish Mohammed cartoons had all gotten fired by their newspaper.
True, the First Amendment doesn't protect your right to keep your gig as a community banker even though you wear a swastika T-shirt. But it ought to.
If the First Amendment is to truly protect freedom of speech, it must allow Americans to say and think whatever the hell they want, no matter how outrageous. So the First Amendment should be expanded to prohibit economic reprisals.
A right to free speech, ostensibly protected in order to encourage the vigorous exchange and discussion of ideas that make a society truly free, is meaningless if a person risks getting fired each time he opens his mouth. While it is true that some people will decide that the risk of professional opprobrium and unemployment is worth it, most people won't.
What would a boss stand to lose if the First Amendment were strengthened?
They would risk embarrassment. But they would also gain a big measure of CYA: When one of their staff did or said something outrageous, they could point to the First Amendment and shrug their shoulders. In the Helen Thomas example, Hearst execs could say: "What can we do? She has the right to say whatever the hell she wants."
Which of course she should.