ESSAY- Religion trumps: As libertarians wage war on free speech

Two months ago, long-time White House correspondent Helen Thomas got fired by her employer, 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. The only reprisal Ms. Thomas has materially suffered (in addition to the public opprobrium directed at her) is the loss of her job at Hearst. She held her job at the pleasure of her employers, and if they decide that due her comments they no longer want her around, they are not obligated to retain her. She is not– indeed, none of us is– entitled to a forum... particularly a paid one."

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. Countless workers have gotten canned for statements they made on non-work-related blogs and social networking sites. Even more worrisome, many citizens don't have a problem with that. Even self-described leftists have embraced the libertarian extremist view that you have the right to say whatever you want–but don't expect to be able to feed yourself or your family if you do.

Posters at Democratic Underground, a left-of-center discussion site frequented by that rarest and most appreciated of creature, 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." "Free speech is not guaranteed to be speech without consequences," wrote another.

"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 and whistle the Horst Wessel song on your lunch break.

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.

As things stand, the First Amendment is pure sophistry, a bad joke. 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. And don't.

Consider the other basic right guaranteed under the First Amendment: freedom of worship. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act makes it illegal for an employer to fire you because of your religion (or lack thereof). (There's an exception for employers that are religious groups.) The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed numerous federal lawsuits against companies it accused of reprisals against employers due to their religious preference.

Why is religious expression granted greater protection than, say, political speech? It's not because religion is inherently less offensive. To many people, religion is itself offensive.

The distinction is arbitrary and, ironically, wholly political: in the secular American republic, you have the right to say that your God is better than anyone else's God without fear of losing your job. If Helen Thomas had thrown down a Muslim prayer carpet on the White House lawn and prayed toward Mecca, it would have been offensive to many people. But she'd still be working.

Another way to examine my proposed expansion of free speech protections is to look at it from the standpoint of an employer. What would a boss stand to lose if the First Amendment were strengthened?

Certainly, employers would lose a measure of control over their workers. They would risk embarrassment. But they would also gain a big measure of CYA: when one of their staff did or said something outrageous (but Constitutionally protected), 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.


Ted Rall's last essay in the Hook was "U.S. policy: We don't win wars; we just disrupt" which appeared July 29.



Mr. Rall, do you think that we should be able to kick politicians out of office because we disagree with their platforms? To me that is no different than firing an employee, just for example, for using racial slurs against customers. Why is it that, to you, one is good and one is bad? Seems completely equivalent.

You're arguing for complete freedom of speech. Stating that a benefit is that everyone else can say "she has the right to say whatever the hell she wants" on a page that ends with this warning?

"People say the darndest things, but language stronger than "darn," insulting words like "S*****," ethnically or racially disparaging language, and comparing people to H***** usually results in deletion of the comment and may get you blocked from further commenting. Ditto for posting unverified and/or potentially libelous allegations, and even off-topic digression. And to avoid spam, any comment containing more than two weblinks gets eaten by Bigfoot."

IMO the two don't seem to sit well together.

Also, I find it rather funny that the words I replaced with stars from this site's comment content warning are actually "blacklisted" against use in comments.

Jessie, get a clue. Ted Rall didn't create the Hook's website and is hardly responsible for its content or how it filters comments. He's probably never even seen it. The Hook just published his essay. Doesn't mean they agree with him.


If Helen had said "I hope we send all the jews to the gas chambers!", should she have still kept her job? Even though her organization would have lost credibility and business through keeping on a high profile fan of genocide? According to your arguments put forth in this article, the answer seems yes.

To be honest, I can't tell if this is really how you feel or if you are just trying to start a passionate discussion that ensures this page gets many hits. I find it hard to believe you cannot see where your line of argument leads.


But Helen didn't say " I hope we send all the Jews to the gas chambers," did she? That's a threat of physical harm to a group of people. That's entirely different. IN fact, I don't think what she said was even remotely anti-semetic. It was a political opinion which many Americans happen to agree with, for very logical reasons.

I happen to agree that employers have far too much say over what we think and do in our private lives. That opportunity is only there because of so much public information via the web, but the fact is, they seem to think they own our lives.

They do not.

How we represent the company when we are in 'uniform' matters, and how we speak about the company. But what we do on our private time, as lng as it is legal, is really not their business.


My point isn't about what she said, nor is Ted's. As he says, "If the First Amendment is to truly protect freedom of speech, it must allow Americans to say and think whatever the h*ll they want, no matter how outrageous." This would cover all speech, including someone who says they were glad the Holocaust happened or that 9/11 happened.

This whole idea, at least stretched to the point argued here, is absurd. If what someone says in a public forum could affect the company's bottomline, then they have every right to get rid of the person as long as they are not violating contractual agreements or stipulations by doing so.

What if someone who works for Apple spent all their free time telling everyone, through public forums, Apple is a terrible company and puts out a subpar product? Under Ted's reasoning, they should be protected from any action by Apple.