Freedom of Speech Only Goes So Far…

CurtSchilling

Earlier this week, former Boston Red Sox pitcher and ESPN baseball commentator Curt Schilling offered up on his Facebook account an anti-transgender meme that has been making its rounds on the internet. In this particular meme (I’ll refrain from putting it on here because…UGH!), a rather unattractive man is wearing female clothing with the quotation beside him, “LET HIM IN! To the restroom with your daughter or else you’re a narrow minded, judgmental, unloving, racist bigot who needs to die!!!” Schilling shared the meme and, after a moment’s thought, deleted it, but not until after some people had screen-captured what he’d done.

To take it a step further, Schilling then stepped to his personal blog and tossed more gasoline on the raging fire. To give him credit, Schilling didn’t shy away from his personal beliefs (“There are things I have deeply held beliefs in, things that are core to who I am, things I am passionate about…whether you like that…or not is completely up to you.”), but he also had to know what was coming (more on this in a moment). That “other shoe” that Schilling might have been expecting came on Wednesday night when his employer, ESPN, terminated his contract, stating simply “ESPN is an inclusive company. Curt Schilling has been advised that his conduct was unacceptable and his employment with ESPN has been terminated.”

This wasn’t the first time that Schilling had stepped down this path. He was suspended after first Tweeting a meme that compared Muslims to the 1930s Nazis and, once ESPN kicked him off the broadcasts of the Little League World Series, followed up with a defensive post to another blogger that cost him the remainder of the Major League Baseball season (despite the factor that the post also defended the person who replaced him, former U. S. Olympic softball star Jessica Mendoza, against comments the blogger made). And this doesn’t count what other memes that Schilling shared over his Facebook feed.

Opinion over what Schilling has shared over his social media – this week and previously – takes an interesting course, one that requires some thought before making a statement. Plenty of people believe that Schilling was simply “saying what a lot of us are thinking. Apparently you can’t have an opinion at ESPN if that opinion isn’t a liberal opinion.” Others believe that Schilling will be quite happy on the unemployment line (probably not; Schilling’s video game company, 38 Studios, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012 and Schilling has sold off personal memorabilia to cover his expenses), saying, “Who would want to work for a company that would punish you for telling the truth?”

There are those that take the other side. “Schilling’s freedom to say what he wants hasn’t been denied; the government has not punished Schilling for what he said,” one person stated. “ESPN, however, has the right terminate his employment.”

That is the key point that many are missing with this situation. Schilling has all the “freedom of speech” rights in the world. The government cannot come after him and tell him “you can’t say that, Mr. Schilling, otherwise we will have to put you in jail.” It is one of the tenets of the First Amendment that allows everyone the right to speak out about…well, whatever they feel are the injustices of the world.

FlagBurning

What many seem to forget, however, is that with the freedom of speech also comes the consequences of that freedom. For example, it is allowable to be able to burn the U. S. flag in protest (and to dispose of it, but that’s another story), encoded by the U. S. Supreme Court decision Texas v. Johnson (1989). While you can go ahead and burn the flag, you also have to accept the consequences of what might happen if you do that; in some cases, there may be a major league ass-kicking that comes along with it…not condoning physical violence, but it is a potential consequence. In Schilling’s case, he perfectly has the right to freedom of speech, what he forgot was the consequences part.

ESPN is a part of the massive Disney empire, which is the target of boycotts by one organization or another probably several times a day, 365 days per year. They try to minimize those issues by offending as few people as possible with the multitude of entertainment options that they provide (this is probably why they chuck the Disney girls who come up through their shows out before they go wild…look at the recent arrests of Debby Ryan and Kelli Berglund and let’s not even get into Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears). Thus, when someone continually chafes their audiences through poking the proverbial bear with their social media actions (as Schilling has done here and in the past), there comes a point when ESPN can decide enough is enough and remove the problem by dismissing the person.

DebbyRyan

It isn’t the first time that ESPN has done something along these lines. After a profanity-laced tirade at a roast for Mike and Mike hosts Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic in which she went off on Golic’s alma mater Notre Dame by saying “Fuck Notre Dame, fuck Touchdown Jesus…and fuck Jesus,” former ESPN anchor Dana Jacobson was suspended for a week from the ESPN airwaves after irritating the Catholic League. Commentator Stephen A. Smith was suspended for his comments on domestic violence and SportsNation host Max Kellerman earned a suspension for his comments on the same matter. These barely even broach the suspensions and/or firings that have been handed out by ESPN in its history for “freedom of speech” violations.

Freedom of speech is a guaranteed right under the U. S. Constitution, but it is only guaranteed when you are speaking about the government. You can criticize the President, Congress, our military actions (or lack thereof), our political directions and decisions or an array of other things and there isn’t a thing that the government can do about it. They cannot come to the street corner where you might be ranting about these things, they cannot censor what you write on the subject and they certainly cannot arrest you for what you’ve said (within reason, of course…advocating for armed treason is one of those areas that they might have actionable cause).

When it comes into the private arena, however, the game completely changes. A company can (and does) look into your personal background, your social media (some companies nowadays ask for your social media names, at the minimum; state and federal legislatures are trying to prevent this) and monitor for where their employees might discuss the company. If this is a surprise to you, I’ve got a story that will emphasize the point for you from more than 15 years ago.

While working in the public sector, I worked with a gentleman who went into an online chatroom and discussed the company we worked for at great length. Needless to say, he wasn’t exactly glowing in what he said about our company as he detailed out what he felt were problems that the organization had. Although he thought he had an online ‘handle’ (screenname) that would prevent him from being identified (they could trace ISP addresses, even back then), the company found out who it was and terminated him immediately, despite his protests of “freedom of speech” (this is an old refrain).

Fired

How many of us would be willing to lay our social media accounts in front of our employer and let them have a look at what we think and say? How many of us would be able to pass the scrutiny of such an examination that our employer wouldn’t have to dismiss us out of protection of their organization? I’ll be the first to say I’m probably not perfect as to some of what I’ve written on social media; I wonder how many people who read this can be that honest.

So it isn’t the factor that Schilling’s freedom of speech is being violated. It is a factor that Schilling didn’t consider the consequences of what his freedom of speech might bring onto the company he represents. For those who contend that a “liberal company” is “silencing” a “conservative” thought, it isn’t that at all; it is a business looking to protect its bottom line by eliminating a loose cannon that could cost it money, plain and simple.

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It’s Time for the VMAs, But Who Really Cares?

On Sunday evening, something that used to be a “calendar” event in the music industry will take to the Microsoft Theater (formerly the Nokia Theater) stage in Los Angeles, CA. For the 32nd consecutive year, the MTV Video Music Awards will take place, honoring the best video work in the recording industry and the performers who have given us their best (?). In reality, however, the MTV “VMAs” and their “Moonman” award have become a gauche award because nobody really cares about them anymore.

When MTV hit the airwaves in 1981 (in fact, on August 1 the station celebrated its 34th anniversary), it was a brazen broadside against the staid, stoic music industry and the radio industry and stations that would “make or break” careers in a heartbeat. The first video aired on MTV, The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” seemed like a four-minute manifesto of what was the intent of the new channel. Record companies and their artists for years had put together promotional videos that, for the most part, were only seen by a handful of people at the record companies and in the radio industry. When MTV came along, that suddenly changed.

Bringing together these hundreds of videos (literally…pretty much anything on MTV in the early days was seen quite often due to the lack of material), MTV slowly built an audience and, at the same time, became the place where new artists made their breakthroughs. Such artists as Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Men at Work, Bow Wow Wow, Duran Duran and the Human League were getting their attention not through traditional radio play but from the constant airing of their music videos on MTV. The biggest move by MTV in its early years may have been the exposure it gave to black artists. Eddy Grant, Musical Youth and a young man embarking on a solo career by the name of Michael Jackson (among others) benefitted greatly from the exposure that MTV provided.

It also had a way of destroying careers. The 1981 Grammy Awards were dominated by a Texas newcomer named Christopher Cross, who earned the top four awards (Record of the Year for his eponymous LP, Album of the Year, Song of the Year for “Sailing” and Best New Artist) and seemed poised for a long career in the music industry. Due to his pedestrian features and roly-poly physique, however, Cross wasn’t the typical “MTV artist” and he quickly disappeared from the scene following his sweep.

A couple of years into their existence, however, the honchos at MTV were faced with with the dilemma of continuing to grow the channel and coming up blank. In 1984, the powers that be at MTV came up with what they thought would be the cure (no, not the band). Producing their first ever MTV Video Music Awards, the channel looked to give the same gravitas to music videos that the Grammys bestow on music or the Oscars give to cinema. Over the years, the show has provided MTV with some of its most outlandish moments while also being its most watched event.

Who doesn’t remember Madonna’s rendition of “Like a Virgin” at the very first VMAs? Or Madonna’s girl-girl smooch with the randy Britney Spears in 2003? How about Kanye West barging in on Taylor Swift’s “Moonman” acceptance speech in 2009 (one of the few times I actually felt sorry for Swift)? The clothes, the music and sometimes even the videos made the MTV Video Music Awards a spectacle for the youth of the era. Over the past few years, though, the futility of the VMAs has been mentioned and whether it is the iconic “happening” that it was in its earlier incarnation.

Part of the reason for that is in the maturation of MTV itself. About 15 years ago, MTV decided that it wanted to be more of a lifestyle channel for the young and hip rather than concentrate on music alone. To achieve this goal, MTV began to put on its airwaves things that weren’t the “traditional” fare for the channel. A host of reality and game shows were the start, followed by fashion and “home” shows (anyone remember “Cribs”?).

The reality trend that took over in the 21st century allowed MTV to pretty much switch over to just the reality shows, including the vapid Jersey Shore and other scripted programming (none worth mentioning). Lost in the mix? Music videos, the thing that borne the channel (part of that was in the fact that the record companies, looking to tap another potential revenue stream, wanted to start charging MTV for showing the previously “promotional” videos). Hence, here you have a channel which was formerly the “groundbreaking” arena for exposing new artists through their music videos – in fact, naming their station AFTER MUSIC TELEVISION – not even showing them anymore.

Videos themselves also seem to have disappeared for the most part. Back in 1982, Duran Duran released Rio, their second album. Using the new MTV format, the group was sent by their record company, EMI, to Sri Lanka and Antigua to film an unheard of 11 videos for the record. Those videos not only served to be a major part of the programming for MTV in its early years, it also established Duran Duran as megastars in the music industry and provided the group with a career that still exists today.

Today, videos are seldom done and, if they are, it isn’t for promotional purposes. More often than not, they are done by popular artists that have no need to garner additional airplay for their efforts (think of why Swift, who has somehow crafted a career in music, continues to put out videos that no one has ever seen) or as a “vanity project.” There isn’t a purpose anymore for the music video because there isn’t an outlet for it to air on (sorry, YouTube doesn’t count).

Which brings us back to this year’s VMAs. Of the nominees that are on the list, I’ve seen exactly two of the videos – Mark Ronson’s collaboration with Bruno Mars on “Uptown Funk” (outstanding song, great video and it probably won’t win shit on Sunday) and Florence and the Machine’s “Ship to Wreck” (a band I can’t get enough of that also won’t sniff a “Moonman”). The rest could be cartoons for all I know because there isn’t an outlet to show them anymore. The untalented Swift is nominated for nine awards while Ed Sheeran has six, with a smattering between Nicki Minaj, Kendrick Lamar and Beyonce and the “Video Vanguard Award” (think Lifetime Achievement Award) being handed to West.  Without an outlet, however, why hand out awards for something that will basically become a popularity contest?

Imagine, if you will, Hollywood continuing to crank out movies and television shows but every theater on Earth not showing them and no television networks to put the shows on? (This one could become reality with the advent of Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and Hulu starting to film their own projects.) Would there still be a slew of awards shows for basically something that doesn’t exist anymore?

As a former DJ and music aficionado, I used to sit with bated breath each year for the VMAs (and the Grammys, for that matter), not only to know who won what but for the outstanding musical performances that it brought to its stage (never enough rock, always too much pop). Nowadays the videos are all things that I haven’t seen and the “musicians” (and that term is a stretch in many cases) and their music are so over-produced they cannot perform their music live. Thus, you have to wonder if anyone even cares about the MTV VMAs anymore.

Sure, there will be some prepubescent teenagers who will watch as Miley Cyrus, this year’s host, tries to show how “adult” she is through some pseudo-sexual act she’ll perform onstage; Swift will still constantly look like a deer in headlights as she facetiously mouths “Me? Me?” after winning her umpteenth award and there will probably be some spat – usually between warring rap parties – that blows up backstage into a story. It’s time for MTV’s Video Music Awards for 2015, but does anybody really care anymore?